Cultivating Mindfulness on a Radioactive Path

By Michael Winnell

For years, I have worked to slow, if not end, the long-term threat of radioactive waste products created by nuclear weapons and power plants. Radioactive waste is likely to threaten life as long as humans inhabit this world, so it is important for me to speak clearly and firmly. Those who support the nuclear cycle are also very determined. In this atmosphere, it is paramount to know one's grounding. I am learning to respond to this very difficult issue from my Buddhist understandings, largely revealed through the teaching of Thich Nhat Hanh and the concept of interbeing.

Bringing mindfulness to an issue this large and difficult is challenging. It is very easy to take sides, point fingers, become a talking head of facts and statistics, forgetting that "This is like this, because that is like that." Having read Thay's talk, "Man is not our Enemy," I am struck by the depth with which he, and each of us, can hold the whole of the reality without choosing sides. It is not helpful to view producers of radioactive waste as wrong or the enemy. Their motivation springs from the same place as my own. In fact, I benefit by being able to turn on the lights at night. But their actions, as well as my own, are creating very difficult problems. I must bring to their attention my understanding of the future we are creating, but I must also realize they may not respond. My attachment to their response, and my desire for a specific response, is a negative seed to hold in mindfulness. At the same time, I must continue to firmly state facts about these dangers, truthfully and without exaggeration.

The Buddha taught that reality is both historical and ultimate. The suffering generated by fear—particularly the fear of death or nonbeing—is enormous. Being and nonbeing are elements of suffering in the historical dimension, but in the ultimate dimension, understanding can transform fear, relieve suffering, and bring joy by opening the door of loving kindness. Remembering these teachings, I can better relate to the people directly involved in the decision-making and production process of the nuclear cycle, and to myself. It is a demanding practice. Many people involved in nuclear waste production and storage do not see the connection between what they are doing and all life. They do not seem to recognize that nuclear waste could sicken or end many life-forms, or that it brings suffering even to the elements split by nuclear fission. All atoms split by fission emit energy in an attempt to regain a stable state. The energy they emit in their quest for stability, however, threatens all life. My determination not to harm people, animals, plants, and minerals is directly challenged by the production of this energy, and by my benefiting from the energy when I turn on the lights, the washing machine, or the computer.

With mindfulness, it is easier to be aware of my tendency to move into fear and duality, to choose sides and create more suffering for myself and others. It is easier to understand those whose perspective differs from mine, and not to vilify them. As Thay taught, "they" are not our enemies, nor is fear, hatred, or even duality; all can be held and transformed by understanding. It is important for me to remember that behind each environmental concern or dispute, are people with varying degrees of suffering. Mahatma Gandhi used to say that if his adversary did not respond positively to his proposal, it was not the adversary's fault, but his own, for not stating the truth clearly or simply enough. Each person contains seeds of goodness, truth, and beauty. When suffering is relieved through understanding, these seeds respond, joy is born, and there is no ability to continue to do things that harm others.

Leaping into the debate surrounding radioactive waste requires mindfulness and careful attention to motives. It is important to gather information, research the facts, and engage. The Buddha taught his followers to engage the Dharma in daily life, and in our engaged practice, the Buddha still lives. In the spirit of the teachings, I must engage first in my own heart, and then move into the communal arena with my concerns about nuclear waste, in order to help relieve suffering of people, animals, plants, and minerals.

As I breathe into my fear, I breathe out hope that this life has made a difference to at least one atom of radioactive waste and perhaps one mind. Reminded that nirvana is in this moment, may I understand, so as to relieve the suffering brought to matter and to living beings alike, actions are all we take with us. May we know the joy of interbeing, not grasping or judging, just walking on the path with mindful breathing and attention.

Michael Winnell, practices with Dancing Rabbit Sangha, in Elk Rapids, Michigan. If you would like more information about the radioactive waste issue in relationship to nuclear disarmament and the burning of MOX fuel in commercial reactors, please email him: mwinnell@onramp.freeway.net

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Dropping My Worries

By Leah Matsui The plans for my trip to America were jampacked: a seven-day mindfulness retreat with Amie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald, three days with my beloved aunt in Florida, and a meeting with my mother—the first in 24 years. I anticipated Florida as a high point—Aunt Helene and me drinking iced tea under the palm trees and reminiscing about my darling stepmother who died last January. It was a great scenario of peace, reconciliation, and comfort, especially for me. A perfect plan for happiness.

Imagine my shock when the day before my departure, I received news that Aunt Helene's only daughter had just had surgery for a malignant brain tumor! A second surgery would take place the day I planned to arrive in Palm Beach. My plans flew out the window.

Ironically, a few weeks before I had spoken about wanting to become a "big river" as the Buddha taught, with the capacity to absorb and transform suffering with ease. But in this moment, with plans dashed, I was a tiny stream inundated by a storm of emotions. As I sat in front of the Buddha in our living room, my mind whirled. "Should I go straight to Florida? Cancel the trip? Who can help us? Can my cousin survive? Can my aunt survive? Can I survive this suffering?" One decision was made for me—no part of the bargain air ticket from Japan could be changed. My aunt said, "Come anyway, Leah." But there was a chance she would be out of the state, consulting with specialists when I arrived.

Out of the confusion, I realized that the three Jewels —Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—are on-call 24 hours a day, but that it was up to me to make the call. First, I would be at a retreat. After the retreat, I could contact our teacher the Buddha, or Dharma brothers and sisters if things became turbulent. So I felt ready to go and meet whatever circumstances arose. The only meditator in my family, I planned to go as a "good Buddhist." Maybe I could be a "Compassion Distribution Center" in the midst of crisis. Maybe my practice could help others.

Many things worked favorably for my cousin, and when I landed in Palm Beach, my aunt was waiting. Luckily, as soon as we hugged at the airport, my preconceived notion that I was on a "mission of mercy" disappeared. I was able to hug my aunt in the present moment. I was able to be myself and she felt just like herself in my arms.

Aunt Helene and I have been talking about feelings since I was three and she was sixteen. Now, forty years later, we were together in Florida, talking and listening from the heart. Anchored in the present by conscious breathing, I was able to relax my grip on how things "should" be. I felt joy and gratitude for my aunt's smile, the melon pink sunset, and the fact that my cousin had survived this day. Before bed that night, Aunt Helene and I practiced hugging meditation.

Early the next morning, I sat in meditation. Then, walking into the Florida dawn, I met a wild jackrabbit. My aunt prepared "American Bagels" for breakfast—a real treat. I gave her a Japanese Shiatsu hand massage. Later, my cousin called. She was out of intensive care and very upset. She was losing big clumps of hair. We talked, and for me, it was one of the deepest interactions I've ever had with her. She asked for a hat. "Please," she said, "so I won't be embarrassed in the hospital."

That afternoon, my aunt and I went hat shopping. It was tough for me as we started out. I have always admired my cousin's beautiful hair. On this shopping trip, only the present moment could offer peace. "When you live a long time, there are a lot of ups and downs," my aunt told me. We found the perfect hat in a surf shop, and then enjoyed some delicious iced tea.

Nothing that day went according to my "plans" for happiness, but for me it was the best day and the worst day at the same time. There was no need to be the Buddhist of the family or to hand out any prepackaged compassion. My aunt and I took turns, each sometimes embodying terror or equanimity. We were both in touch with plenty of genuine peace during the storm.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that the conditions for happiness are right before us. He often stresses that "happiness is being fully alive in the present moment." I have always been moved by the possibilities this teaching offers. But until recently, it has just been an idea. We each study and practice the Dharma at our own pace. On this trip, it was my turn to really practice dwelling deeply in the present and letting go of worries and plans.

Looking back now, I see that expectations gave in to reality, and with that came fear and confusion. The surf was up, the waves were rough, but the anchor of the present held me firm and stable. On the retreat, Arnie Kotler had quoted Dogen-zenji: "Every day is a good day." And so it was for me. Thanks to the Buddha's teaching, I was able to open up to the present, and enjoy the gift of three wonderful days in Florida.

As of June 2000, Cousin Alicia is back home, a joyful wife and mother of two. Officially cancerfree, to me, she is more beautiful than ever. May all beings be protected and safe.

Leah Matsui, True Light of Awakening, practices with the Sazanami Sangha in Kumamoto, Japan.

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Second Body Practice in a Lay Sangha

Weaving the Web By Caleb Cushing

Some of us in the 25-member Pot Luck Sangha were intrigued by the Second Body practice that Thay described in "Taking Care of Each Other." (The Mindfulness Bell, Spring 1999) Being openly responsible for supporting another person's practice and simultaneously encouraged by another sounded profound. We imagined that a Sangha's practice and relationships would become richer and stronger through the practice, but we'd never heard of a lay community implementing it. Looking at the practice with our Sangha eyes, we designed a lay version and tried it with remarkable results.

First, we shared copies of Thay's article. Over the course of three meetings, we sorted through our initial concerns, such as what the practice might actually involve and how the pairings would be determined. Many questions arose. "How do we arrange pairings if someone wants to connect with a particular person? What does being a first body do and how often? How intimate and involved should we get? What about people who were marginally involved with the Sangha? Should we mix genders? When does encouragement become too intensive? A volunteer committee drafted a proposal, after eliciting all our confidential concerns and suggestions.

Some of us who were not deeply committed to the practice understandably declined to participate, and some even withdrew from the Sangha, reacting to the increased expectations of involvement. Some Sangha members paired with marginally-involved people met apathy or avoidance. Most people, however, were committed and connect to a committed body, and thus, received a lot of support.

In practice, it soon became clear that relationships were more than pairs or trios. Several second bodies appreciate the support of companionship to help establish a regular, daily practice. My first body now joins me each dawn for sitting meditation, and my second body often joins us as well. We've become dear friends and share music and books, breakfast several times a week, and lunch once a week, after we work in each other's vegetable gardens all morning!

Within each group, participants determine the type of involvement they'd like. It might be by phone or in person, talks, walks, or meals. Some people shared vacations, cars, help with finances, or rides to the airport. We found that people expected different things, and had varying amounts of time to offer. So, it helps to establish boundaries. Frustrations arose from expectations and differing commitments to practice. Mindful speech and deep listening are essential when discussing expectations. Our Sangha found that the practice reduces isolation, which Thay calls the illness of our century. But it takes time to make the second-body practice work. Commitment and involvement is key. When someone dropped out, the circle mended itself at that point, with the adjacent bodies connecting.


We shared our experiences with each other after three months of trying the practice. Here are some comments from Sangha members:

  • "By focusing on one person, my view shifted from a routine, general outlook to a new and more vivid relationship, which is touchingly important."
  • "The second-body practice pulls us out of our habitual self-concerns."
  • "I'm surprised and delighted by the extent and depth of the connections."
  • "I feel fortunate to be part of such a tender practice."
  • "This practice helps us get over our shyness and feelings of inadequacy. Our awkwardness is reduced by the support and structure of the practice."
  • "The more I'm involved in the Sangha, the better I feel, and this practice really supports that."
  • This practice doesn't work if there's not contact. People who aren't actively, regularly involved in the Sangha don't fit in as fully."
  • "It's a practice that makes us stretch."
  • "This practice is my gateway to a diligent practice, and that is a great joy. I've always intended to practice regularly, and now I do. Also, I've connected up and down the circle, and to the whole Sangha."
  •  "Being in community means taking care of each other."

After four months, we agreed by consensus to spin the wheel again, and draw new practice partners for the next three months. This practice became a real "glue" for the Sangha, drawing us together beautifully.

Caleb Cushing, True Original Commitment, compiled this article with the help of the Pot Luck Sangha in Oakland, California.

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The Practice of Letting Others Be Themselves

By Lorena Monda mb29-ThePractice1My greatest teacher of letting others be themselves has been my daughter, Lisa. Watching her become herself has been a delight to me over the years. I have approached each stage of her development, even the difficult ones, with curiosity. When I have faltered in this, she has always let me know. Even in our conflicts, I have seldom assigned devious, undeserved motives to her behavior. My deep love for her has allowed me to practice letting her be herself more easily than with anyone else.

Somehow, I had different expectations for a partner. When I entered into my relationship with my partner, John, I discovered I had to practice letting him be himself. I was pretty good at letting myself be myself; I had practiced that for years. But I was inept at letting John be himself, despite the fact that I knew how to let others be themselves through my experiences with my clients and students. I knew I had it in me, yet seemed to have difficulty practicing this with John.

Early in our relationship, we had terrible fights because I felt that he was not in touch with his feelings, or not dealing with something I thought important. Instead ofletting him know what I needed, I became angry with him for doing things differently than I did.

Over time, I learned that he is sincere in his commitment to our relationship, but that he is not like me. His way of dealing with things is different; his timing is different; his methods are different. For example, when I brooded over some difficulty between us, he often asked me to take a walk. I discovered that if, instead of accusing him of not dealing with the problem, I went with him, I felt much better afterward and was more able to clearly see what was bothering me. I now trust John's values and realize him to be a good person. I know he wants many of the same important things I do from life. I know we are in this together.

Our ability to be true to ourselves and different from someone else while still remaining connected creates a paradox, one that generates great freedom. Many of us believe that to have connection with someone else we have to be the same. This attitude limits us in relationships, because each person is unique: We are not the same as anyone else.

Many relationship fights are about the struggle for each member of the couple to be themselves. In these struggles, we often look at the other person as the enemy. Many of the worst struggles take place when we have similar longings but different methods. In my own relationship, I have had to learn to give John the space to experience his feelings; while many of mine are immediately available, his take time to percolate up through his  consciousness. I have learned to observe his steadfastness and solidity. He has learned to not be so overwhelmed by my reactivity - which had helped me calm down, and call on other resources. John has learned to appreciate my passion, and I have learned to love his patience.

When we first meet someone we like, or when we fall in love, we are willing and able to let the other person be themselves. We are curious about the other person and we want to get to know him or her. We may see some limitations but are willing to overlook them, because we see the appealing characteristics.

Later in the relationship, we may become more critical of the other person's limitations. We see these flaws as harmful to us. While some characteristics really are harmful, here I refer to how we surrender ourselves to the other person's limitations, blaming our unhappiness on him or her. This creates conflict because we expect the other person to change to make us happy. Because he or she can't or won't change, especially without our compassion, we make the other person the enemy.

When we see the limitations of others, we can then offer them our compassion instead of our fury. When we see another person clearly, we are more able to decide what kind of relationship to have with him or her, and make better relationship choices. Had I known how to let others be themselves in the past, I could have saved myself from some heartbreaking relationships. My partners were telling me, through their actions, that they could not give me what I wanted. Yet, I did not believe them because I was fixated on my relationship dream rather than on the person who was actually before me. If I had been able to see them clearly as themselves, I would never have asked them to give me what they could not.

When our habit is to make the other person the enemy during conflicts, we miss what is really going on; we miss the gifts of our differences. Ifwe practice letting others be themselves, we can see them as they truly are-with their gifts and limitations. The practice of letting others be themselves while being true to ourselves helps us expand into compassion and true love.

Excerpted from Lorena's book, The Practice of Wholeness: Spiritual Transformation in Everyday Life.

Lorena Monda, True Perfect Way, practices with the Mindful Heart Sangha in Placitas, New Mexico.

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