don’t know mind

Sangha as Refuge

The Dharma of Caring for Alison K. By Lauren Thompson

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I never knew Alison K. when she was well. By the time both she and I were regularly attending the Rock Blossom Sangha, in Brooklyn, New York, she was a few months into a diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer. Her tumor was a glioblastoma, the worst kind. According to the statistics, she had a year, at most two years to live. She was forty-one.

This would be my first intimate encounter with the reality of death, with the reality of someone I knew dying. For the Sangha, it would be our time to experience most poignantly what it means to take refuge in Sangha.

Having brain cancer is difficult enough. For Alison, the difficulty was compounded by her family situation. She was living alone; her parents had both died years earlier; she had two sisters, but one was unable to help, and the other was able to visit only periodically. For reasons known best to Alison, she had decided to grant three close friends the medical, financial, and legal powers of attorney. They all loved her and were deeply committed to her care, but even as a group they couldn’t meet all of her emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. And so the degree of refuge that Alison sought in Sangha was profound. As her illness progressed and her needs grew more intense, the compassion that arose within the Sangha, both as individuals and as a body, was just as profound. For me, the experience was one of watching a miracle unfold, as beautiful and poignant as a lotus flower.

Like a flower, this bud of compassion unfurled in stages. At first, only one or two members were involved in her life outside of Sangha. For most of us, our involvement consisted of listening deeply to her words during Dharma sharing. She shared all of her pain and confusion, her fear and occasional joy and ease, and for me, as for many, her need was sometimes overwhelming. I felt a strong impulse to close her out, to guard myself from her pain. I felt the discomfort of strong aversion, and also the discomfort of disapproving of my own aversion. Was I really so selfish and weak that I would turn away from a Sangha sister who was dying of cancer? At times I felt such distress that I could barely sit still.

But the practice of deep listening helped me through these storms. Week after week, the instructions for Dharma sharing reminded me to observe my reactions without judgment, to simply bear witness to her truth, to listen for what may not be said in words, and to attend to everything with great gentleness. After some time, I found that my response had changed. As Alison spoke at length about her life’s present conditions, I heard the heart message beneath her words: “I suffer. Please help.” And the bud of compassion began to open.

It was then that I was able to reach out personally to Alison, and it was then that our brief but intense friendship began. One fall afternoon we met for tea, and we spent hours in conversation that dispensed with the usual preliminaries and small talk. We connected very deeply. Within weeks, Alison’s condition worsened, and through the winter and spring she spent more time in hospitals and hospice than out. Her capacity for language began to deteriorate, so that at times conversation was not possible. Yet our connection remained strong; in fact, it became only stronger.

What she needed was for me to be fully present to her, and during my brief visits, often no more than an hour once or twice a week, I found I was able to offer this. Whether that meant laughing over a movie with her, staying with her through times of confusion or distress, or holding her hand as she slept, it was tremendously rewarding to be with her in this way. It could also be draining and upsetting. I learned I had to take care of myself, as well, in order to take care of her. Layer by layer, the petals opened.

Blessed... Blessed... Blessed

As Alison’s condition worsened, many others in the Sangha were also drawn to be personally involved. Some offered regular companionship. Others helped to move her belongings into storage when she had to leave her apartment. Some visited as they could, or provided occasional transportation; others offered support to Alison’s closest caregivers. Some simply held her in their thoughts.

And Alison expressed her gratitude for it all. A precious memory for the Sangha is a tea ceremony which Alison attended in the fall. Alison began by sharing how thankful she felt for the support she had received, the friendship, the love. Then she sang a song for us all. It was a setting of the Beatitudes, which she sang beautifully in a low, warm, alto voice. “Blessed … blessed … blessed are the poor in heart, for they shall be comforted ….” She sang with her eyes closed, her hands crossed over her chest, as if her heart could not contain all that it must hold.

As the months went on, Alison would at times be able only to whisper “Thank you” or “So sweet,” or smile her luminous smile. Even if the most she could do was gaze into our eyes with warm intensity, she found a way to convey her gratitude.

Living in the Moment

We found that, even if we were only marginally involved, caring for Alison required that we shed expectations. Her condition would worsen and then dramatically improve, so we never knew what to expect from any visit. One day, she may be quite talkative. The next, she may be almost comatose, as her heavily medicated body stabilized after a major seizure.

Our sense of how much longer she might live was in constant flux. She moved back and forth between supported independence and hospice, between functioning and incapacity. Each transition felt like the end of one era and the beginning of another, but how long that era might last was anyone’s guess, even the experts’. “Don’t-know mind” was the only frame of mind that could contain this fluid reality. There was no definite future to plan for together – the customary illusion of “the future” could find no fixed mooring under circumstances like these. There was only the present moment.

We in the Sangha all contended with the feeling of helplessness, of having to accept that we could not give Alison what she really wanted, a reprieve from early death. And much as we might wish to offer our comfort, we couldn’t know how she would receive it. She might greet us warmly and ask about ourselves. Or she might barely waken. Or, for others more than for me, Alison might display the impulsive fury of a frustrated child, straining every fiber of her caregivers’ patience. We consoled each other, in person, by phone, and through an e-mail care circle, that our loving presence could be only helpful. We also encouraged each other to take breaks, to give only as much as we could without feeling resentful.

The challenges were many, but the gifts were many, too. I know that for myself, time I spent with Sangha sisters and brothers whose visits happened to coincide with mine often led to long, intimate conversations. Being with Alison awakened in many of us the sense of how precious every moment with another being truly is. Knowing this, how could we be anything but completely authentic and kind? For me, these encounters provided moments of deep healing of the terrible loneliness that had always left me feeling set apart and unknown. Through Alison’s dying, I had fleeting glimpses of interconnectedness with all of life, of true interbeing.

The Most Beautiful Gift

Certainly the clearest experiences I had of interbeing were with Alison herself. During one visit in early spring, she was alert and eager to communicate, but her speech was confused. Still, her heart intent was very clear. She insisted that I not leave until I had some “Christmas.” She knew that wasn’t what she meant, and after a few moments she landed on the right words: ice cream. An aide brought us each a cup of ice cream, and when she couldn’t finish hers, she offered it to me. I told her that more ice cream would probably upset my stomach. She held her cup out to me, saying, “Then eat it carefully. I’m giving it to you carefully. So you eat it carefully.”

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As I took the cup, I was moved almost beyond words by her offer, which was indeed full of caring. She seemed to be passing to me, not just ice cream, but her life, asking me to enjoy for her the portion that she would not be able to enjoy herself.

“Alison,” I said, “you are a good friend.”

“Yes, but no,” she said. “You don’t understand. I really like you. No, not like. I mean, I don’t want to be …”

She started gesturing broadly with her hands, and I suggested, “You don’t want to be all lovey-dovey?”

“Right,” she said. “But I love you. I really do.” “I love you, too,” I said, “I do.”

And for many moments there was only silence between us. There was a communication then that was not really between “Lauren,” with one personal history, and “Alison,” with another. We barely knew each other on that level. It was a connection of our very being. It was a moment of such joy and sadness. It was the most beautiful gift. A “Christmas” gift indeed.

When I was ready to leave, she patted her bald scalp and said, “Next time we have class, I’ll wear my hat.”

I smiled. “You mean next time I visit?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“You look lovely just like this,” I said. I kissed her forehead, said good-bye, and left. That was our last conversation. Within a week, she passed away.

To the Other Shore

I knew Alison well for only six months. I knew very little about her family or her relationship history, or what kind of music she liked. But through her dying, I caught a glimpse of our fundamental interbeing. Along with others in the Sangha, I felt that I was able to step, now and then, in the footprints of the bodhisattvas, responding with compassion to Alison’s condition, which was, ultimately, the human condition. I sensed, moments at a time, how precious life is. I saw how Sangha can be a boat that carries us safely to the other shore — it carried Alison, and it carries me still.

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Alison K. passed from this life on March 27, 2007, at the age of forty-two.

mb50-Sangha3Lauren Thompson, Compassionate Eyes of the Heart, practices with the Rock Blossom Sangha in Brooklyn, NY. She is a children’s book author, presently working on an adult memoir of her experiences with Alison K.

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Morning Sun Rising

By John Young mb51-Morning1

Five years ago Fern Dorresteyn and Michael Ciborski began a series of conversations with practitioners across the United States and around the world; listening, talking and imagining a life rooted in practice outside the structured container of the monastery. Having spent nearly a decade in Plum Village (also Deer Park and Maple Forest monasteries), first as lay people and then as monastics, they knew that practice would always be the foundation of their lives. And they knew that a life of practice is vitally nourished by living closely in spiritual community. Their aspiration is to creatively meet our fast-paced, stressed-out consumer society face to face with a clear, vital alternative.

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So began the journey that has led to the creation of Morning Sun, a small (but growing!) residential lay community and practice center in rural New Hampshire.

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In dreaming and living Morning Sun, we look for balance; allowing space for the organic development of our community, depending on who arrives into it, and also ensuring that there is a glittering diamond of clear intention rooted in practice that informs all we do. For those of us (like me, for example) who come from lives of planning, power, control, and strategy, this wise fluidity is a wonderful opportunity to embrace “don’t know mind.”

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As the seasons turn from winter to spring, we are growing into the next chapter of life in Morning Sun. We will soon close on the purchase of 240 acres of beautiful land and begin construction of the first two houses, a simple meditation hall, and a couple of cabins. We’ll plant our gardens, grow our vegetables, and open our hearts to practitioners who may wish to come and join their lives to ours in Morning Sun.

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The summer ahead will be a full one — both in terms of working on the land that will house our community and in terms of programming. We’ll offer our mindfulness adventure summer camp for children, teens, and parents for the third year in a row. We’ll offer half-days of mindfulness three times a month and one full day every month, we’ll collectively offer deep ecology/spirituality workshops based on Joanna Macy’s work and hope to hold a series of these throughout New England. And we’ll continue to navigate the local planning process so that we can move forward in preparing the land to welcome new practitioners.

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As the community grows, so will our efforts to be present with and serve the world. Clustered around a beautiful pond we will slowly build our center, where people can join in practice and learn about the bodhisattva way of life. Around our central campus, individual dwellings and co-housing will be built for residents and long term guests. Our intention is to offer diverse programming for individuals and families: helping them to slow down and touch the joy of simple living; transform anxiety, confusion and stress; and develop their capacity to work through the practice of mindfulness and sustainable living for the benefit and healing of society and the Earth.

As all of this unfolds we are delighted to be making new friends in the micro-region right around the Morning Sun land. It turns out that we are in one of those very special spots on the planet where people have been drawn to put down roots and build community in all kinds of different ways. The Orchard Hill community, school, and fantastic bakery is a just a couple of miles up the road. And a couple of miles in the other direction is the Sustainability Project, where we’ll be holding our camp this summer. And then there’s Mole Hill right across the road from our current practice house, where our neighbor Dennis holds evenings of theatre, music, and other festivities.

As we look out over the coming months and years we are filled with gratitude. So many conditions are coming together to support the vision we have been dreaming of for such a long time. We are blessed and so very happy to share the fruits of Morning Sun with all.

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John Young worked as a political adviser and activist in Canada until three years ago when he went to Plum Village for the first time. He then left his career, his home, and all his possessions to follow the path of practice. You can reach the folks at Morning Sun online at morningsunedcenter.org or by phone at (603) 357-2011.

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Just Be There

mb58-JustBeThere1Wisdom from Sounds True By Karen Hilsberg

In 1985, when she was twenty-two years old, Tami Simon founded Sounds True, a company that disseminates spiritual wisdom. She recorded radio interviews with well-known experts in psychology, religion, and personal development, and began to make the recordings available on cassette tape through a mail order company she started with a $50,000 inheritance.

In an interview, Simon recalled a visit to Plum Village over twenty years ago. She travelled to France to record the chanting of Plum Village monastics, including Thich Nhat Hanh, for the classic recording Drops of Emptiness. During her visit, Simon met with Thay and asked him how Sounds True could continue to support his teachings. Thay sipped his tea and pondered silently. He then responded, “Just be there.”

Twenty-five years later, Sounds True is indeed there as an independent voice in publishing. The company continues to offer recordings of retreats and teachings by Thay. Most recently, it has published a DVD of Thay teaching mindful movements, which Simon noted is “a unique [contribution] within his canon.”

When asked what she has learned from interviewing many of the spiritual luminaries of our times, Simon reflected on three lessons. First, she explained, “Nobody really knows what is going on.” Having observed that conditions are changing all the time, she recommended using our “don’t know mind” or “beginner’s mind” to look upon our lives. Second, she stated, “Each of us has an inner authority.” We each have a true autonomy to know what is going on within us and around us. Third, she proclaimed, “There is no end to the growing, softening, and deepening of our experience of source as source. There is no end to improving our relationships. The spiritual path is endless.”

Simon’s company is unique in that it maintains a corporate structure for its eighty employees that is both “mission-driven and profit-driven.” The 19 Core Aspirations of Sounds True include: “We encourage authenticity in the workplace,” “Animals are welcome,” “We encourage people to listen deeply,” and “We aspire to take time for kindness, have fun and get a lot done.” Sounds True offers training in the practice of mindfulness in the workplace, has a meditation room on-site, and has responded to employees’ requests for spiritual retreats. All-company meetings begin with a minute of silence. The company uses 100 percent wind power in its offices and warehouse, and prints its catalogue on eighty percent post-consumer recycled paper.

Sounds True’s most recent offerings include continuing education courses for professionals, online and interactive learning with spiritual leaders, and over seventy free podcast interviews. An additional free resource is www.withinsight.com, a site rich in articles, guided exercises, and author Q&A on the topics of meditation, energy healing, life purpose, and intuition. Simon noted that the podcasts, interactive guides, and online learning are especially wonderful for individuals in their sixties, seventies, and eighties, recently dubbed the Silver Tsunami generation, who find themselves with more time and less inclination to leave home.

What began as a woman with a tape recorder has developed into a cutting edge corporation that offers spoken word audio programs, videos, and music for the inner life. Over the past twenty-five years, Sounds True has ridden the wave of the information age and offered products that support countless people on their spiritual paths.

mb58-JustBeThere2Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, lives in California. She founded Organic Garden Sangha in 2003 and mentors Order of Interbeing pre-aspirants and aspirants in Jasmine Roots Sangha.

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