grief

Inhaling the Dust, Yearning for Light

Being with suffering in New York City after September 11th By Larry Ward

I had an opportunity to go to New York to be with Thich Nhat Hanh and some of the monks and nuns to conduct a service at Riverside Church on September 25. My flight to New York was the first time I had been on an airplane since September 11. When the tragedy of the World Trade towers occurred, I was in the air on a flight to Denver, which of course was re-routed. It has been part of my spiritual practice for over thirty years to be aware that every flight I take could be my last. So that part of it was not a big deal for me, but I was interested to see what I noticed. The first things I noticed on September 24 were visual and physical: all the security at the Santa Barbara airport and how far away I had to park. More importantly, I started to noice fear and anxiety in people at a higher level than normal, and I started to notice gallows humor. I noticed that going through security, I had to give up my fingernail clippers. And then I noticed that there were only ten of us on the airplane. We flew to Denver and I changed planes there, connecting to a flight to La Guardia, in New York. That plane seated 250 people and there were thirty-two of us on that flight. One of the people on that flight appeared to be Arabic and his seat was next to me. I noticed how nervous and afraid he was, and how difficult it was for him to make eye contact with anyone including myself.

When our pilot announced our approach to La Guardia, I looked out the window and I was suddenly disoriented because the World Trade buildings were no longer there as a reference point. As we descended down through thick white clouds, I realized that I didn't have any idea what was happening next with this airplane. We could have been flying into another skyscraper for all I knew. I was deeply aware of how much trust I had put in the hands of so many unknown people for so many years. We landed without difficulty and passengers applauded. Upon exiting the plane as I walked out the door I could see from the gate all the way to the outside of the airport because it was almost empty except for security, and a few vendors who didn't have any customers.

I hailed a taxi to my friends' house on West 22nd Street. We had dinner that evening and talked about their experience of what happened. They shared with me feelings of shock, sadness and sorrow. They expressed a sense of newfound vulnerability and anxiety present in the lives of individuals, families and institutions located on Manhattan Island. I invited them to join me at Riverside Church the next evening to be with Thay and the community to practice making peace with our anger together.

Before I left Santa Barbara I had told some Sangha members that I planned to do walking meditation at Ground Zero, making at least 5,000 steps, one for each of the missing people. The next morning I got up early and went to Canal Street, which is as far south as you can get in a vehicle in Manhattan. I then began my mindful walk the other twelve blocks down and then six blocks across to Ground Zero. Breathing with each step and seeing deep heartbreak in the faces I passed, I practiced looking into each face as if it were one of the missing ones. As I got closer to Ground Zero the pungent smell of rubber burning filled my nostrils and a smoke-filled haze irritated my eyes. I continued to breathe, with every step for a lost one.

I proceeded to do walking meditation for four and a half hours. I walked from every possible angle. After forty-five minutes I stood with my first glimpse of Ground Zero. It took me into deep, deep silence. My mind could not take in what I was witnessing. The site was overflowing with people, some just standing and crying, others taking pictures or walking by in disbelief. The police and military were busy keeping order but even they were filled with an eerie silence. The grief at Ground Zero was so thick with substance it had erected its own monument to the tragedy. My mind could not take in what I was witnessing within and around me. I walked to view the site from yet another angle and then another. About two hours into this humbling process I began to notice the dust and ash. All the buildings within six or seven blocks of the site were covered with dusty ash and as I looked down I saw that I too had become covered. I then realized that I had been breathing that dusty ash, and then I realized that it was the dust of a policeman, it was the dust of a fireman, it was the dust of a stockbroker, a janitor, a secretary, a maid, a delivery person who just showed up on his bicycle to deliver a package like he did every other day when he went to work.

The dust of the September 11th World Trade tragedy was in me now as I was in it, in every cell of my body, in every mindful step, every fiber of my heart and the mystery of my every breath.

I am so grateful to our dear teacher who with his whole heart  has transmitted to us Buddha feet, Buddha eyes and the instruments of the Doors of Liberation. The Doors of Signlessness, Aimlessness and Emptiness, are so important to practice with. I know the World Trade buildings looked really solid and strong and tall. They were never eternally solid; they were empty of any permanence. All dharmas, all phenomena are marked with emptiness and signlessness. They have no enduring separate self and are always in disguise. Every building, every political regime, every civilization, every tree, every bush, every Larry, every policeman, every fireman, all are marked. Our ability to experience Buddha feet, Buddha eyes and insight into the Doors of Liberation are rooted in our capacity to experience aimlessness, which begins with our mindfulness practice of stopping and looking deeply.

I went to Riverside Church at 3:30 pm to help with preparations. When I arrived, there were already 100 people lined up and the program did not start until 7 p.m. Part of my helping out was to keep checking outside. The next time I went outside there were 400 people lined up twice around the block, and about fifteen minutes later there were 2,000. About a hal f an hour later there were over 3,000 people. The church only seats 2,500; we had standing room only, fitting in about 3,000 people, and the re were still many people standing outside Riverside. Participants in the evening were so grateful for the presence of our Fourfold Sangha. We chanted the Heart Sutra and Thay gave a Dharma talk on practicing with anger. Sister Chan Khong told the story of her hometown in Vietnam that was destroyed during the Vietnamese-American war and she talked about how she practiced with that.

It was so profound to see the fruit of the practice. Those of us who were there, Thay Nhat Hanh and the monastic community, Order members, and local Sanghas were able to hold the grief of 3,000 plus people without getting caught by it. We practice for ourselves, yes, to develop our own solidity, our calmness, our own insight. But we practice in that way so that we can offer it to other people when they need it.

Quite a few people asked me one question: "Where are you from?" I said, "I'm from California." Their second question was, "Did you come here just for this?" And I said, "Yes." And many started weeping. I felt grateful to have enough calmness, enough solidity and stillness to be there. I felt that the whole Sangha had enough of the paramita of inclusivity, of forbearance to be present there. The paramita of inclusiveness is not just the capacity to hold suffering, it's also about the capacity to practice in such a way, to live in such a way that we can transform the world's suffering into light. We develop and nurture this capacity when we practice Noble Silence, when we practice conscious breathing and sitting mindfully together, when we practice mindful walking and the mindfulness trainings together.I came back from New York clearer than ever before. One, this is the time for Maitreya Buddha. This is the exact moment for, as Thay Nhat Hanh would say, "Mr. Love and Ms. Love." Actually if you look closely and you look deeply at what has happened and what is happening, you can see him and you can see her already here. Now is the time to deepen our practice. It was clear to me in New York that I could have stayed there and expanded local Sanghas and initiated residential practice communities, because people were so clear what doesn't matter and what does matter. Two, this is a time of transformation and healing. I know from my own study of hi story that whenever there is war, hidden underneath the sorrow and the confusion and the chaos that war creates is a profound spiritual opportunity. I don 't intend to miss it. So I'm in the process of rearranging my life, so that I can spend more time practicing mindful living, mindful breathing, mindful walking and mindful Sangha building. I want to be fully present for the Dharma and the work it inspires in our world of suffering and confusion.

The world is experiencing a deep yearning; it is yearning for the light of its true home in the midst of this darkness. We are yearning for the light of the Buddha which is present in each of us; the light of the Dharma which is present in reality itself; and the light of the Sangha, our capacity to live in harmony and awareness.

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Larry Ward, True Great Voice, lives at the Clear View Practice Center in Santa Barbara, California and is a cofounder of the Stillwater Sangha there.

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Breathing Into Life and Death

An Interview with Rochelle Griffin by Barbara Casey, at Plum Village, June 2002

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Barbara: Rochelle, how did you come to live in Holland?

Rochelle: I was born and raised in the United States. During my first year of college my father became the director of the American International School in the Netherlands. So the next summer I went to Holland for vacation. I decided to stay a year, and then I never returned to the U.S. I was a very angry young woman, and I was particularly angry about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. I had many friends who had gone to Sweden or to Canada to avoid the draft, and I felt a lot of solidarity with them.

I was also scared, because in the United States they had shot students who were protesting the war at Kent State University. In Europe I had such a sense of solidity from the culture, from the cities and cathedrals that were a thousand years old. I liked Holland because it’s a very small country that has integrated many cultures and many religions, and I really appreciated that there were fifty-two political parties. It’s a socialist government and somehow the people are able to work together. There were a lot of anti-war demonstrations, and I had no fear when participating. I found work and friends in Holland. So I’m American by birth and Dutch by choice!

Barbara: Tell us a little about the work that you are doing now.

Rochelle: The story starts many years ago when I was in training to become a midwife. I was critically injured in a car accident in 1980, the only survivor of a front-on collision. I was in the hospital and rehabilitation for almost two years. There were a number of times that I didn’t think I was going to survive. I have a clear memory of a near-death experience that changed my outlook on what I perceived death and life to be. During this experience I was not attached to my body, and I had a deep experience of being pain free, of being surrounded by a sense of well-being, support, love, and life. I felt that I had a choice to go towards the light or to return to my body. I was able to bring back that deep awakening with me when I returned to consciousness. I had a real sense that I had work still to do on earth.

That experience helped me begin to learn to live with chronic pain. As I started to deal with chronic physical pain I realized I also carried a lot of chronic emotional pain. At this time I met Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who is a well-known Swiss-American psychiatrist and has done a lot of work dealing with the taboos around death and dying. I was her translator during a workshop called “Life, Death and Transition.” I felt very strongly that my new work would be helping people process their suffering. I spent much of the time between 1984 to 1988 in the United States and Europe, doing workshops and training with Elisabeth and her staff. Because of my accident and resulting handicaps, I received disability pay from the government. I did not want that kind of financial support, I wanted to be independent and self-supporting.  But in hindsight it’s been a blessing because it’s given me the freedom to develop the work I’m doing now.

In 1985 I started working primarily with people with HIV and AIDS in the Netherlands. I didn’t decide to work with these people in particular, but it was the group that was calling me and the door that opened. It was such an honor to be with people who had been afflicted with great suffering very young in life, and to witness their process of healing before they died. Their suffering included a great deal of stigmatization and misunderstanding and I have always felt an affinity to those issues.

In the beginning I worked primarily with gay men, but before long there were many people of mixed backgrounds including college students, middle aged women who were infected through their husbands, people using drugs intravenously, prostitutes, people in prisons, and people who had sex with someone who was infected. There were also children who were infected during birth and those who were orphans, because both parents were ill or had died of AIDS. Before there was any medication for treatment (AZT only became available in 1987,) I mostly worked with death and dying issues because people had an average life expectancy of only about thirteen months after diagnosis. Later as more medications became available, we were able to work through much of the pain and suffering at a deeper level through our Homecoming workshops, and to nourish the resulting peacefulness with mindfulness retreats.

In 1989 I set up my own foundation, called Fire Butterfly Foundation for Conscious Living and Dying. “The butterfly is a universal symbol of the soul freed from the confinement of the body. Fire stands for the accelerated transformation process which occurs when we’re confronted with our own impending death. People with a limited life expectancy can meet this challenge and increase the quality of their own lives and of those around them in a powerful and positive manner.” Rochelle Griffin

I feel that I have become a midwife in other phases of life, and am often a midwife for men too! My work has to do with finding out who we really are deep inside. In doing so we can discover that we’re really not as isolated and as alienated as we may have felt through our upbringing, that there is an energy in us that connects us as human beings to each other and to the universe. I wanted the groups to be mixed with young and old, gay and not-gay, men and women, and parents with children. Also caregivers would come to the workshop thinking it was going to be five days of lecture, but all this work is experiential, and that is what really helps to be a better caregiver. You can help others better when you understand that you’re not alone. When you’ve worked through your own feelings of anger, fear, grief, hopelessness, and helplessness, then you can be with others as they experience their own pain and suffering, without interrupting their process and without offering solutions. I don’t think that you can actually accompany people on this path futher than you have dared to go yourself. In trusting this process, we can tune into a different level of knowing what is best for us from inside out. And then we can trust that others will find their own way too, and we can be there for them, keep them safe, and encourage them to find their own answers.

In about 1982, a friend suggested that it might be helpful for me to learn to deal with my chronic physical pain by learning some form of meditation practice. I enrolled in a weekend retreat in a Christian abbey where Zen was practiced, and in that first weekend I discovered that instead of denying pain it was possible to go right into the heart of the pain and to sit in it. The pain transformed, and there came a great space where pain was present but it wasn’t only my pain, there was a sense of collective supportive energy. I also realized that my pain increased by resisting it and trying to deal with it alone. I practiced on this path for about fifteen years before I found Thay.

Barbara: Can you give us an example of some of the processes you offer in your Homecoming workshops?

Rochelle: People come to me when they find out they’re ill, usually. Or there are families, or healthcare givers, for instance, who are dealing with burn out. To prepare for a workshop, which is a very deep experience, we ask for a lot of medical information and we also do an extensive professional intake, so that we know who’s coming and if it’s appropriate for them to attend.

Usually the workshops have about fifteen to twenty-five participants and two to three staff members. It’s a very mixed group. I don’t work exclusively with people with AIDS any more because many of the doctors and healthcare services in Holland are referring people with other diseases and people with war trauma, abandonment or sexual, physical, and emotional abuse issues. Everyone seeking their own answers in dealing with issues related to loss and change are welcome to apply.

People will come thinking, “I’m coming to learn how to die,” or “I’m coming to learn how to live,” but they discover that they’ve been carrying a kind of backpack around almost all their lives they feel a weight on their shoulders that they can’t explain, so bit by bit we take some of the stuff out of that backpack and look at it. We bring the dark parts into the light and in doing so, we discover that we were actually more dead than alive by carrying this weight around! As a facilitator, my primary job is to create a physically and emotionally safe environment for this to happen.

In the beginning of the workshop we set a number of agreements about how we’ll be together, about confidentiality and how it’s okay to share our feelings, to be angry, to cry, to feel fear and express it by screaming, for instance, and it’s also okay to be quiet. We begin expressing feelings gradually, but because it’s a group process it goes very quickly but quite deep.

The first evening we have a candlelight memorial ceremony for the many losses that we have had in our lives. People just say a word or a name as they’re lighting a candle. The next morning we do some teaching around what we consider natural emotions that we are born with and enable us to survive in the world, and we teach how they become distorted in our lives, often causing more suffering. That is our ‘unfinished business.’ For example, there was a man recently who was feeling a great deal of fear and there’s nothing more scary than working with fear. I invited him to come forward and I explained: We work only with that what is present in this moment, so if you feel ready to explore this, sit down here and tell me what you’re feeling in your body, because we always start with the body. I started with a relaxation and guided meditation with awareness of breathing. The body gives us a lot of information, it’s as though the cells have a memory. This man shared that he felt as though there was a brick in his belly, it was really hard and black on the outside and bright red inside and less solid. This gave me some indication that there might be a layer of fear (the hard outer layer). The blackness could represent grief, surrounding a lot of anger represented by the inner, red, more fluid part, telling me that it could be explosive and dangerous if released unexpectedly. He told his story of having been a Spanish immigrant child, living in Germany with his family. He was left alone a lot of the time. His father was unhappy with his work and he’d become an alcoholic. His mother worked as a cleaning lady, and was away much of the time. The mother and children were abused by the father when he was drunk. This kid spent more and more time on the street, got involved in a gang to feel that he belonged somewhere and was caught dealing drugs. He was sent to jail, and in jail he was raped, and in the process he was infected with HIV. He had so much fear about getting into his feelings because he thought, If I really get into my feelings I’ll kill someone, and I don’t want to kill people, I don’t want to continue this vicious cycle, I want to stop it!

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I explained: This mattress we are sitting on is the boundary, this is where you can get out all your rage and your grief, step by step. Gradually he opened into his deepest feelings and he got into some very deep rage, and what he found beyond that rage was the little child that he’d been when he was three years old. Discovering this child, he sobbed deeply. At three years old, he had been taken care of by his grandmother in Spain while his parents went to Germany to work. She was his security and his love, but she died, and he had to go to Germany to be with his mom and dad, and as the family became increasingly dysfunctional, he was hurt very much in many ways. But when he was able to get into contact with that little child in himself, he again felt the joy and peace that he’d missed for a long time. He came to understand some of the ways that he had learned to neglect and abuse that child, which empowered him to take charge of his life. He began to understand that his parents had done the best they could under the circumstances. Eventually he was able to forgive his parents and himself.

I have found that this work of dealing with our feelings in a very direct way helps us to connect with our ancestors and connect with our spiritual self. We’re not teaching people to beat on telephone books or pillows continually. Sometimes people might need to do that a couple times just to get a sense that they can be angry without getting to the point that they will kill someone. In this way they learn the difference between healthy anger which enables us to say ‘no’, to be assertive and set limits, and distorted anger when we can hurt ourselves and our loved ones. I’ve worked with quite a few war veterans and people in prisons who have killed people, to help them understand that deeper inside there’s a very wounded child who needs to be healed and cared for. When we can access that child, the healing occurs, and the forgiveness develops. I think forgiveness, including self-forgiveness is a very important issue.

Barbara: Do you use conscious breathing in this process?

Rochelle: I do help people to become aware of their breathing how deep, how free it might be in a particular moment. The breath is a key tool that can be used to access the body and to understand what is going on inside, beyond the thinking. I’m very skilled in observing body language.

In the Homecoming workshop we present this work through a form of Gestalt therapy, which is a mixture of a number of psychotherapy techniques. It’s based in healing wounds so that we can come to a place of peace and joy, so that we can live our life with a sense of aliveness instead of merely surviving. Breathing is a real tool. I often will tune in to someone’s breath to understand more deeply where he or she is emotionally at that moment. Our breathing tells us a lot. I become aware of my breathing to see where it’s stopping or where it’s flowing or if it’s smooth or not smooth, kind of like taking my emotional temperature. I explore the places in my body asking for attention (by being painful, closed, restricted, cold, or empty) during my in-breath and offer space and relaxation with the out-breath. In the workshops we begin and end the day with mindfulness meditation, and do walking and sitting meditation with the participants. In the workshop we also demonstrate how we can effectively become better caregivers. If someone has survived and transformed a certain experience of suffering, others can be nourished when that story is witnessed and understood.

Conscious breathing plays a role in the workshops as it does in the dying process. When people become more ill and closer to death, mindful breathing becomes more and more conscious, because when you have no energy, what else can you do but breathe? Through your breathing, you can connect to your emotions, as a way of releasing, letting go, and relaxing. Also as a way of connecting to what is and to that which we are holding on to and avoiding.

This last winter I was very ill with pneumonia and was having a hard time breathing, and I was so grateful that I know how to connect with my breathing through mindfulness practice. From my window in the intensive care unit in the hospital I could just see a small strip of sky between the buildings. I noticed the full moon outside and in this way I connected with my loved ones, and flowed with the pain, not denying anything, but able to connect with love, with life, and with support. I felt completely safe and at one with the universe.

Often people from one of my workshops will ask me to be with them or guide them in their dying process. One of the greatest fears that we have is the fear of dying alone. I don’t think we actually can die alone, but people often fear that they might. So I offer my service of being with them as they prepare to die.

Barbara: What do you mean when you say that you don’t believe that we can die alone?

Rochelle: I feel that we have a lot of help from both sides people with us in the present as well as from the collective consciousness. Often I hear stories from people who have been close to death, who say that a loved one who has already died is present, that their essence is present somehow during the dying process, and that this eases the fear and even can increase the sense of joy and peace in going towards death.

Often I will ask someone who is dying, “What do I tell people who want to know about dying? What is your message, your truth that you would like me to share?” The answer is always similar to how one friend expressed it: “You don’t need to be dying to start living. You can begin now, today. You can heal old pain and finish what is unfinished. Work through your grief, anger, fear and please do express your love enough! Then you can find peace in your life and in your death.” – Jaap Jan, age 34, lived until 1995.

Barbara: As mindfulness practitioners, how can we best be with our loved ones who are ill or dying?

Rochelle: Mindfulness practice is so important because it makes us aware of the moment and of being present, and what sabotages us from being truly present. It can be real hard when it’s your own family member, especially when we have unfinished business, expectations, and unfulfilled longing.

We can learn to be instruments of peace. If we are firmly rooted on the earth, with our head touching the sky, connected to our source of spirituality in the universe, we can be an instrument between the universe and earth. Being peace in ourselves, making peace in our family and community, then we can facilitate the peace process with others. Understanding the breathing is a real tool because dying is not much else than a deep and total relaxation!

Barbara:At retreats we do semi-totally relaxation!

Rochelle: As long as we’re alive we don’t do that quite so totally as when we die!

Barbara: Right, right.

Rochelle: When we come into this world, we fill our lungs with breath, and this is the point of birth. At the end of life we breathe out and we die. I often offer breathing exercises and relaxation exercises to people going through the dying process. If you put a little more accent on the out-breath and it becomes a little bit longer, there is a point when there’s no breath, a still point. The in-breath is effort, and the out-breath is the relaxation or letting go.

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Often I meet people who are so concerned about life after this life, or life before this life. I feel we have our hands full with our suffering and our joy in this life! I sometimes wonder if we actually are able to experience life before we die. Many people seem just to be coping to survive, without feeling really alive. So what I do is to bring what we experience as painful and that which we deny or run away from, into our consciousness so that it can heal.

I’ll tell you a story about a really good friend of mine who died a few years ago. He had to have lung surgery, and he’d asked me to be present while he went through this. I stayed with him for the weekend afterwards. He was in and out of consciousness, and every time he became conscious he would grab my hand and not want to let go. But as he would relax and kind of slip away, I let go.  I stayed in a very light physical contact with him with my little finger just touching his, but not with the grasping. And I continued to breathe with him. I would support his breathing with my breath by making it a little audible.

As he came around and awakened, he said, “Rochelle, your being here has felt very supportive, but why did you keep letting go of my hand?”

I explained, “I wasn’t sure if it was your time to go, and I wanted you to feel free. I wanted to be present with you, whichever way you needed to go.”

“Oh,” he said, “I understand. I was grasping.” And I said, “Yes, and I wanted you to know that you had the choice, the courage, and the freedom to do what you needed to do for yourself.”

A few months later he was near death, and I went to the hospital, as he was asking for me. This was Saturday morning and the plan had been for him to go home on Monday so he would be able die at home, probably later that same week. But he was becoming very weak and his breathing was labored. I came into the room I looked at him and he looked at me, and I said, “You know, you are going home.” And he nodded. He knew. I added, “But, we cannot take you to your house, do you understand that?” And he nodded again. He had an oxygen mask on. I asked him, “Do you want me to come sit with you, and do you want me to guide you through this?”

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He motioned with his hand, inviting me to sit close by on the bed. He took the oxygen mask off himself.

I said, “Allow yourself to be fully aware of your breathing, and follow your in-breath and your out-breath. Just in between the in and out-breath there is a still point where there is only stillness, before the in-breath starts again. Can you feel that? Gradually, allow your out-breath to become a little bit longer, and just relax into that. Is that okay for you?”

He laid his hand very gently down next to mine, not grasping. He looked at me as if to say, “I got it, I don’t have to hold on any more.” In a few breaths he relaxed completely and his breathing stopped.

It is so touching to witness this letting go, fully conscious and without resistance. He was a great teacher. That was a gift.

Barbara: Where do you see the direction of your work continuing?

Rochelle: I see myself as a privileged listener and I go where I am invited. My hope, my vision, is that my story will be an inspiration for other people to develop their own ways of healing into their own life and death. I’ve trained a few people to continue working with the emotions as I learned from Elisabeth. I’ve done this work throughout Europe, and also in Israel and the USA. At present there are fewer people dying from AIDS, so our center in Holland has become more  of  a  mindfulness practice center for anyone interested in exploring their own answers around loss and change.

In addition to this work in Holland, we have opened a center in Spain where I’ve also been working for the last ten years and there is a team trained to offer similar work there. The last couple of years I’ve been invited to Israel several times, and with the situation in the Mideast right now, I think there’s an awful lot of work to do there.  And there’s the AIDS crisis in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. Some of the newer pain medications have become available in Vietnam for people with cancer; however this medication and nearly all medical care, is denied the people dying of AIDS. I do not have the illusion that I am going to all of those places, but there is much to be done. I’m watching to see what doors open as I continue being a privileged listener and training others to be also.

What I’ve learned very deeply because I’ve been so ill, is we have to take the time to take care of ourselves. We can’t care for anybody else until we take care of ourselves. At present I’m in a new phase of finding my personal balance between doing and not doing.

Barbara: Do you live in chronic pain still?

Rochelle: I have some pain always, in varying degrees, depending on how well I’ve been able to keep myself in balance. I use a combination of some medication, but mostly I use what I call my M.M.&M. therapy (meditation, massage and manual therapy) as well as taking care of my emotional needs and making time for myself to just gaze at the frogs in the pond. Every time someone dies or leaves, I feel the grief very physically. I recognize my grief when my heart feels closed off and often I feel physically cold and uncomfortable. What I’ve found is that I move through the grief process when I’m willing to go deeply into my feelings, including the resistance, by letting myself cry, feel anger, and whatever else I need to do. I am becoming more skillful at embracing these feelings without needing to express them fully; just recognizing them and their original source is often enough. Then my heart can open, be free, and feel supported by the love in the universe again. That’s what I think has helped me to repeatedly regain my balance, along with the support of my Sangha and my partner, throughout the eighteen years that I’ve worked so intensively in this field.

Barbara: As the process of birth has been brought out of the closet, you are helping to bring the process of dying into awareness also. We all need work like yours to help us to face death.

Rochelle: Yes. I’ve offered many trainings for volunteers and for healthcare professionals in the field of palliative care, and the work is always about our own issues. We often think, as professionals, we come into this work because we want to help others, but we have to help ourselves first. Because in dealing with dying people, if you aren’t completely authentic, they know! They are always a few steps ahead of us showing us the way!

Barbara: It’s like being with children.

Rochelle: Absolutely.  You can’t fool them at all.  They know when you’re being real and when you’re not!

Barbara: [laughs] That’s true! Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with the worldwide Sangha.

Rochelle: Thank you for asking.

Rochelle Griffin, True Light of Peace, Chân An Quang, practices with the Sangha Riverland. She lives with her partner, Jantien, and their golden retriever, ‘Gino-the-Joyful’ at the Vuurvlinder Center and Guesthouse for conscious living and dying, in Heerewaarden, a small village in the center of The Netherlands. Rochelle enjoys learning about the wild environmental needs of reptiles by breeding them in the safety of her large garden.

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is the managing editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

Photos by Harry Pelgrim.

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Letter from the Editor

mb48-First1Dear Thay, dear Sangha, It is impossible for me to read this issue without thinking of our recently deceased son, Jesse Toy. Everything I see and do is through the lens of his sudden passing on February 4. We are thankful for the hundreds of cards and letters from you, our Sangha — from Germany, Norway, the U.K., and across the U.S. As Jesse’s father Philip and I walk the changing landscape of our grief and joy, there is one image we will not soon forget: Jesse’s pink baby blanket spread on the floor in the meditation hall, covered with colorful origami paper cranes, bright flowers of peace and hope.

This is the cream of our practice: the blanket — a symbol of birth and the ground of mindfulness; the color — pink for the new life of Jesse’s continuation; and the joyful cranes — emblems of our transformation body. The origami peace crane project was launched by our friend Teijo Munnich, a Soto Zen Dharma teacher. In the two months since Jesse left his physical body, we have fully celebrated his life. We were joined by former Sangha from Old Path Zendo in Pennsylvania at our Quaker service. We hosted an elegant Ceremony for the Deceased in Thay’s tradition at Cloud Cottage in North Carolina. Next week our Sangha will plant a weeping willow in honor of Jesse. Yet the cranes have touched us most. The care and cherishing in every fold of each colorful bird speak of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The birds on the blanket look like they’re having a party!

This issue of the Mindfulness Bell is like that blanket — a Dharma party. These pages are the blanket: the expression of the practice of our beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, of our blood and spiritual ancestors, and the skill and love of our editor, Janelle Combelic. Each story, poem, letter, and prayer is like one hopeful paper crane. Each crane is distinct, yet each is the same as the others. Tears fell on the origami paper as we folded together. And from our suffering fly the wings of peace.

Paper crane-making for those who are sick, dying, or have died springs directly from the suffering of World War II after the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, and the little girl Sadako who touched hearts around the world with her suffering. So, too, in the stories of this issue the wars and tribulations of life are present. Every story, poem, and image tells us transformation is possible — that through our precepts, concentration, and insight, we can gently invite ourselves back to the present moment, this wonderful moment. In February, our son passed away. This spring the forsythia shines brighter than any spring before.

Sister Annabel Laity wrote us a letter to help prevent us from drowning in our grief after Jesse’s passing. She invited us to touch and learn to liberate the anguish of our ancestors who lost their sons in wars and other sudden, tragic ways. She wrote, “I have confidence you can transform this grief into a beautiful flower, and that your son lives on in the fruits of transformation that you realize.”

From out of our season of sorrow and wonder, Philip and I offer you crocus buds of gratitude, dear Thay, dear Sister, dear Sangha.

Judith Toy, True Door of Peace Associate Editor

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Sangha News

mb52-SanghaNews1 The Realization of a Dream

Thich Nhat Hanh began his last Dharma talk at the Path of the Buddha retreat by speaking about the EIAB.

It has been Thay’s dream to set up an Institute of Applied Buddhism in the West, and now the dream has been realized. We have created the European Institute of Applied Buddhism [EIAB] in Germany, very close to Cologne. It is in the heart of Europe. There is a monastic community and a lay community taking care of the Institute and offering retreats and courses on Applied Buddhism. If you are a Dharma teacher in Europe or America, you might be inspired to go there and teach a course. You can bring your children and your students. There will be many students there from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and so on. You can get more information about it by visiting their website, www.eiab.eu.

Unlike other institutes, there is a permanent Sangha always practicing there. At the EIAB, the residential community embodies the teaching and the practice. It is the most important feature of the Institute. Whether you are in Dharma discussion, listening to a talk or practicing sitting or eating, there is always a strong Sangha present to support you.

We want the teaching of Buddhism to be applied to many areas of life, so a variety of courses are offered. There is a twentyone-day course for young people who are planning to marry,

to help them learn practices and to gain insight that will make their commitment successful. This course has roots in the history of Buddhism. Traditionally, in Buddhist countries like Thailand, a young man had to come and practice in a temple for a year before marrying. It’s like military service, but instead, this is spiritual service. Even the prince had to do it, or he would not be qualified to be king. When a man asked a woman to marry, she would ask whether he had fulfilled his time in the temple. If not, she would refuse his offer. Now people come to the temple for a shorter period, but that service still exists. We hope that in the future in every country there will be an institute that will train young people before they can marry, because they will have a much better chance to have a happy family life. Because there are so many families broken by divorce, we must offer that course everywhere.

We also offer a twenty-one-day course for children who have difficulties with their parents, and one for parents who don’t know how to communicate with their children. And we offer a course for both parents and children to practice together. We offer a course for people who have recently discovered they have an incurable disease like cancer or AIDS, and one for those who are grieving from the loss of a loved one. We will also offer a course on how to set up and lead a local Sangha.

The Buddhism taught at the Institute of Applied Buddhism is not a religion, but a way of life, a way of transformation and healing.

I think our spiritual ancestors and our blood ancestors have prepared this place for us in Germany. There is a lot of land, with many trees and clean air. The people in the town like us and are glad we have come. They support us, bringing gifts to the monastics. The building can hold 500 retreatants. Thay

intends to organize a gathering of Dharma teachers there from Asia, Europe, and North America to stay together for one week. They will sit and walk together, drink tea together and reflect on how to make the teaching and practice relevant to our times. So, please, if you are a Dharma teacher, you might like to come to that retreat at the Institute, probably two years from now.

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The Meanings of Engaged and Applied Buddhism

First was born the term, “Engaged Buddhism.” Engaged Buddhism means that you practice all day without interruption, in the midst of your family, your community, your city, and your society. The way you walk, the way you look, the way you sit inspires people to live in a way that peace, happiness, joy and brotherhood are possible in every moment.

The term Engaged Buddhism was born when the war in Viet Nam was very intense. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on, and what was happening then was bombs falling, people being wounded and dying: suffering and the destruction of life. You want to help relieve the suffering, so you sit and walk in the midst of people running from bombs. You learn how to practice mindful breathing while you help care for a wounded child. If you don’t practice while you serve, you will lose yourself and you will burn out.

When you are alone, walking or sitting or drinking your tea or making your breakfast, that is also Engaged Buddhism, because you are doing that not only for yourself, you are doing that in order to help preserve the world. This is interbeing.

Engaged Buddhism is practice that penetrates into every aspect of our world. Applied Buddhism is a continuation of engaged Buddhism. Applied Buddhism means that Buddhism can be applied in every circumstance in order to bring understanding and solutions to problems in our world. Applied Buddhism offers concrete ways to relieve suffering and bring peace and happiness in every situation.

When President Obama gave a talk at the University of Cairo, he used loving speech in order to release tension between America and the Islamic world. He was using the Buddhist practice of loving speech: speaking humbly, recognizing the values of Islam, recognizing the good will on the part of Islamic people, and identifying terrorists as a small number of people who exploit tension and misunderstanding between people.

The practice of relieving tension in the body is Applied Buddhism because the tension accumulated in our body will bring about sickness and disease. The sutra on mindful breathing, presented in 16 exercises, is Applied Buddhism. We should be able to apply the teaching of mindful breathing everywhere – in our family, in our school, in the hospital, and so on. Buddhism is not just for Buddhists. Buddhism is made up of non-Buddhist elements.

So please offer your help because the European Institute of Applied Buddhism is our dream. Find out how you can help make this dream come true. Next June we will have a seven-day retreat there.

—Thich Nhat Hanh Plum Village, 21 June 2009

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Give from the Heart The European Institute of Applied Buddhism

Following is an excerpt from a fundraising letter by Thay Phap An on behalf of the monastics residing at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB). To read the complete letter, view photos of construction at EIAB, see the course catalogue, or make a contribution, please visit www.eiab.eu.

19 June 2009

Dear Beloved Sangha,

In September 2008, more than twenty brothers and sisters were sent to Germany from Plum Village to set up the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB). This has been a dream of Thay’s since he was a young novice. His wish is to bring the teaching of the Buddha into every aspect of our lives. Buddhism should not only be theoretical, but it should be practical and we should be able to apply it in transforming the suffering of individuals, families, and society. At the EIAB, we will have courses for new couples who are getting married, for parents and children who wish to reconcile, for police officers, psychotherapists, teachers, and businesspeople.

The EIAB building has the capacity of hosting 400-500 people. The military operated the building from 1967-2006 and they have their own set of fire safety regulations. As the EIAB, the building is considered to be in civilian use, and the authorities have a very different set of fire safety regulations for this purpose. In addition, many water pipes are now old and rusty, and together with our now out-of-date kitchen, they no longer meet the public health standards. We also need to repair our old heating system due to many leakages, and more importantly, to make it more energy efficient and ecologically friendly. To house the intended number of people, we would also need to build many more public toilets and showers.

In the last nine months, a team of experts that includes architects, engineers and technicians have looked carefully into this matter, and we now know that we would have to spend at least 3 million Euros for half of the building to be functional and open to the public. The EIAB is not allowed to be opened to the public under current conditions, and the brothers and sisters are only given temporary permission to stay in a small restricted area of this building until January 2010. This means that we have to raise 3 million Euros as soon as possible in order to proceed with the construction work and have it completed by the end of 2009.

Last night, I was thinking about how we can raise this big amount of money in such a short time. I evoked the name of the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion to ask for her help, and for the whole night, I thought about my international beloved community – brothers and sisters and friends that I have come to know in my 18 years as a monk. I thought that if each of our friends, families, or local Sanghas everywhere in the world would give a contribution of 500 Euros, then with 6,000 such contributions, we would meet our urgent need of raising 3 million Euros by the end of this year. I am writing this letter to our friends all over the world so that you know about our situation. I have a deep trust in our beloved community. I know that if I communicate our difficulties to you, we will receive your help.

The EIAB is a vision not only for the European community but also for the international community. We sincerely ask for your practice of generosity to help to make the EIAB a reality for the cultivation of love and understanding for all of us, and our children.

— Thay Phap An On behalf of the brothers and sisters of the EIAB

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Help Prajna Monastery

Just as a flower garden may experience heavy winds and severe rainstorms as it grows, the Sangha body can encounter very difficult conditions as it blooms in awakening. In recent months, young monks and nuns at Prajna (Bat Nha) Monastery in Viet Nam have faced adverse conditions – including police interrogations, violent attacks, and threats of eviction. Yet they have continued to blossom.

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Causes and Conditions

Prajna Monastery, in Viet Nam’s central highlands, houses more than 350 monks and nuns who have chosen to practice according to the Plum Village tradition under the guidance of Thich Nhat Hanh. They are all between the ages of sixteen and thirtyfive. Since Thay’s first return to Viet Nam in 2005 his teachings have inspired dozens of young Vietnamese to ordain as monks and nuns. The Venerable Abbot Thich Duc Nghi offered the Prajna monastery as a home for the new monks and nuns. Over the next few years, the number of aspirants and lay practitioners quickly multiplied, and Prajna needed to expand. Supporters from many countries donated funds to renovate buildings, build new structures, and buy adjacent land for the growing community.

During Thay’s next visits to his homeland in 2007 and 2008, he met with government officials, including the president of Viet Nam. Thay proposed that the nation open its doors to visitors, strengthen ties with other countries, and reduce its dependency on China. He presented a ten-point proposal to the president. All of his suggestions were adopted by the government except the last one, “to dissolve the religious police and the religious affairs bureau.” In a letter explaining recent events, Sister Chan Khong writes, “It seems that difficulties at Prajna can be traced back to this point.” She explains that Thich Duc Nghi was under pressure from the immigration office to expel Plum Village monks and nuns from Prajna, even those who had a valid visa.

In 2008 Thich Duc Nghi asked the police to evict the 379 monastics living at Prajna. By the end of that year, a report from the Vietnamese Buddhist Church directed the monks and nuns to leave by April 2009.

In a letter to his students, Thay writes that “this was not about an internal struggle over a temple, but it was the result of a delusion: that the presence of Prajna may be a threat to national security, because the monastics at Prajna… want to do politics.” He likens this perception to a painting drawn in the air – purely a projection. “Now everyone around the world is able to see that the monks and the nuns and the aspirants at Prajna only do one thing. That is: to practice and to guide others to practice.”

Wrong perceptions of the monastics have led to violence. A letter from the monastics of Prajna testifies: “Groups of men were ordered to throw the belongings of young monks out in the hallway. Gates to the monastery have been locked so that lay friends could not enter. Some monks and nuns have been chased with life-threatening objects.” Police came to the monastery frequently, searching and questioning the monks and nuns, and asking them to sign a statement that they were living there illegally. Sister Chan Khong writes that the monastics “always used gentle speech toward the police and even offered them tea and songs to relieve their tension.”

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On June 26, monastic huts were torn down in an attack. Electricity, water, and phone lines were shut off, and food deliveries were blocked. An e-mail from a western visitor describes video footage of the event: “An out-of-control crowd swarmed over the grounds… taking things from the rooms, as uniformed police watched and did nothing.” As of mid-August the monastics were still without electricity and water.

A Chance to Practice

For the monastics, these events have offered a chance to practice mindfulness, solidity, and equanimity – to abide in stillness, even in the heart of turmoil.

In a letter dated July 20, Thay reassures his students at Prajna and everywhere: “Thay has confidence that you can behave true to the Dharma in challenging and difficult circumstances. The day Thay received the news that people invaded your monastic residence… throwing out your belongings, pushing whoever got in their way, and going to the third floor only to find all of you doing sitting meditation, evoking the Bodhisattva of Deep Listening Avalokiteshvara in the imperturbable posture, and not trying to react or fight back, Thay knew that you were able to do what Thay has hoped for, and there is no more reason for Thay to be worried about you.”

Thay’s letter recounts the story of a Prajna novice trained in martial arts. In response to the attack, the young brother “asked his mentor for permission to handle those men. ‘Please allow me to quit being a monk. I cannot bear it anymore. I only need fifteen minutes to defeat all those gangsters. After that, if needed, I will go to prison... when I finish my term, I will return to be a monk again.’” His mentor responded with compassion. “Dear brother, don’t call those young people gangsters…. They were misinformed. They are thinking that we are gangsters who have come here to take over the building and the land. They are victims of wrong information, and they need help more than punishment.” He encouraged his brother to sit in meditation and master the anger in him. A few days later, the novice realized that if he had answered violence with violence, he would have “destroyed the great example set by the Buddha and by Thay.”

How We Can Help

The world’s eyes are on Prajna Monastery. Articles about Prajna and “Plum Village style practice” have

appeared in newspapers from the United Kingdom to New Zealand. Worldwide, Sangha members are concerned, confused, and wondering how to help.

A blog titled www.helpbatnha.org features written accounts, letters, photo galleries, and a history of events at Prajna. It also demonstrates the resilient spirits of practitioners there. One photo shows a makeshift outdoor kitchen, with the caption: “The monks find ways to make do with hearts unperturbed.” Another picture shows a barricade of tree branches, with the words: “This pile of trees may block our path, but it can never block our understanding and compassion.”

The monastics have called for help from the international community so that they can practice in safety and peace. They “cannot just find another place to relocate, since there are almost 400 monks and nuns. Moreover, it is not likely that the monks and nuns would be left in peace to practice, even if we were to relocate. Thus, we entrust our protection in our spiritual ancestors and in you.”

To help the young monks and nuns at Prajna, Sangha members can write letters to the Vietnamese Embassy or Consulate, sign a petition at www.helpbatnha.org, inform news organizations and human rights groups, and sit with local Sanghas, sending support and compassion to all those affected by the events at Prajna Monastery.

— Natascha Bruckner

Sources:

  • AP news, Ben Stocking, “Vietnam’s dispute with Zen master turns violent,” August 1, 2009
  • Email from OI member True Concentration on Peace, July 2009
  • New Zealand Herald, Margaret Neighbour, “Monks evicted from monastery in row with government,” August 5, 2009
  • helpbatnha.org

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To Continue Beautifully

Sangha, Loss, and the Creative Process: An Interview with Susanne Olbrich By Philip Toy 

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Into the nebulous, ongoing mystery of life I welcome, as if through an open door, the continuing spirit of the one I have loved. – Martha Whitmore Hickman

During our summer 2010 pilgrimage to Ireland and Scotland, while visiting the Findhorn Community, we were invited by Northern Lights Sangha to conduct two Days of Mindfulness. One of the Sangha leaders, Susanne Olbrich, True Ever-present Stability—pianist, composer, and teacher—graciously consented to this interview.

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Philip Toy: Susanne, you have just returned from a concert tour in Germany, where your Marama Jazz Trio was warmly received. You composed some of the music after the sudden loss of your dear friend and former partner. One piece, “Beyond Gone,” was a meditation you played soon after hearing the news of H.’s passing. How do your practice and your music relate to such a loss?

Susanne Olbrich: It was in Plum Village during the ‘05-‘06 Winter Retreat, just after H.’s suicide, where I took refuge in the Three Jewels. Thay’s teaching on continuation supported me then, especially in light of his conviction that those who take their own lives may not have a good chance of continuing beautifully. Then and there I made a deep commitment to help my friend continue beautifully. Thus the piece “Beyond Gone”—a phrase from Stephen Levine’s book, Who Dies?

PT: Keeping such a commitment in the wake of deep loss requires extraordinary support. Where and how did you find support and encouragement?

SO: It started the first few moments after hearing the news when the shock set in and my legs began to go numb. It seemed as if what kicked in and began to operate was an emergency program designed to hold me. I heard the instruction, “Breathe, just breathe!” This inner voice lingered, and later became like a reliable old friend suggesting when I should rest, when I could let go of an excess obligation, when to focus on one breath, one step, and when to ask for help. Very unlike me! Yet, I would sit on my cushion much longer than usual, however long it took for the pain to subside.

PT: I can see how your decade of practice before this loss paid off. Yet, even with this fortunate help, how did you sustain yourself?

SO: I could not do it without my loving and steady Sangha. They gathered at my place, cooked soup, and filled the house with warm food aromas and their even warmer understanding presences. Whether I had the energy to fully participate or not, soon my isolation began to melt in the warmth of their companionship and compassion—their Sangha eyes, hearts, and hands.

PT: I know from my own experience of the death of my son, Jesse, by drug overdose, and my very close association with Sangha—the complexity of the loss of a child, likely by suicide, calls out for a rich and special brand of caring. How does Sangha embrace and minister to these complexities?

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SO: Making space and holding it, deep listening, sharing from the heart—all central components of effective Dharma discussion— together with the gift of benevolently witnessing one another in the circle. These all allow for the kind of conscious grieving and reflecting that can help dissolve searing issues and questions, such as not having time for bidding goodbye to the lost loved one, or the anger and guilt of “What did I do, or not do,” or “What could I have done,” or “If only….” We can allow all this to unfold within the stable and protective space of the Sangha without fear of getting lost or overcome.

PT: You and I share the experience of surrendering and taking refuge in Sangha following a tragic loss. For me it was key to surviving those earliest days, weeks, and months after my son’s death. As Thay teaches, the Buddha is there, too, in the midst of Sangha. Were you able to take refuge in the Buddha?

SO: The Buddha I took refuge in was the Buddha I had discovered in myself through practice, especially practice with my Sangha. It was the energy capable of witnessing tears and distress with utmost tenderness and letting me know it was okay. There arises an open space for us to recognize harsh feelings and thoughts. Within the fold of Sangha, these feelings may be held gently in the light of awareness, and we may finally watch them evaporate! This was the single most powerful act of self-care I could have given to myself—not just once or twice, but again and again with patience and perseverance. This is the love that heals.

PT: You say you made a commitment to help your lost partner continue beautifully. Tell us more about that commitment.

SO: Thay says that Dharma, too, can be found in Sangha. In Plum Village Sangha those five years ago, I read Thay’s book, No Death, No Fear. Through the teachings on no-birth, no-death, transformation, and continuation, my sense of deep loss was mitigated some and it sparked a new awareness. I was able to see the ways in which my lost friend continues: his adult children, the song I wrote for him, the tree planted at his memorial, the sturdy wooden tables he built for our Findhorn Community Centre, the grove in the Scottish Highlands planted in his honor as part of a national reforestation project, and of course, the many memories I and others hold dear. Also at that winter retreat, I birthed the idea for a new album, a CD in H.’s honor. The cover art would be one of H.’s beautiful nature photographs and the album’s name would be Continuations, in order to celebrate that: “Nothing exists on its own…. Everything is a continuation of something else, and everything will continue in manifold forms…. Nothing is ever lost.” Manifestation of the CD took nearly four years. Every step of the project was a teaching for me, from cover design to legal questions about royalties, from finding a manufacturer to creating a record label, and it was a labor of love. When I finally held the finished product in my hands, with H.’s photo of the Scottish West Coast, it was beautiful. I knew part of my grief had transformed into something else; an artistic offering, a rose from the compost.

PT: You seem to have a heightened awareness of transformation and continuation, leading to the birthing of your Continuations CD; there’s an interaction between mindfulness and the creative process.

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SO: Yes. The energy generated in mindfulness and the practice of deep listening, together with a present-moment focus—allowing what is to be—are working elements for me during the composition or playing of a musical piece. Composing music in its essence has much to do with listening deeply. What takes shape in my inner ear—from apparently mysterious sources—often amazes me. I simply could not have thought it out. In the case of “Beyond Gone,” that’s exactly what happened. About six weeks or so after H.’s suicide when many of my friends had gone back to normal, I was still feeling anything but normal. There was this not-so-subtle pressure that I should be over and done with this grief—ready to move on. In this emotionally stuck place, I had a strong impulse to play for H. It was a meditation.

PT: Your band members’ masterful back-up and solos on Continuations could be seen as an extended Sangha support for you in your grief journey.

SO: Yes, I am extremely fortunate to have found Anja Herold (soprano and tenor saxophone) and Jens Piezunka (acoustic bass and cello). Both bring an extraordinary quality of listening, musical sensibility, and creative imagination to the project. Both of these seasoned improvisers have significantly broadened my musical horizons. Musically, creatively, as well as personally, my work with Marama Trio has been harmonious and joyful.

PT: It seems that as your grief unfolded, your creative process ran parallel to your practice, or in concert with it. I’ve discovered that grief is different for everyone, that it’s at best a bumpy road, and that there is no fast forward button.

SO: Exactly my experience. During the final stage of the creative journey that led to the Continuations CD, I was blessed with two extra-large helpings of Plum Village energy. I was able to spend a whole month with Thay and the Sangha for Summer Opening, 2008, and again for Path of the Buddha Retreat, 2009. Feelings of inadequacy, ignorance of the technicalities of CD production, plans gone awry, bouncing between Scotland where I live and Germany where my band members live—all of these left little time for rehearsals and other preparations. So the energy of the practice was strong in me when I needed it most.

At Findhorn we have woven into the fabric of the community workday the practice of “attunement,” a kind of practical, organizational deep listening. Shifts in every department—management, kitchen, garden—begin with a joint attunement, sometimes holding hands, sometimes sitting around a candle, always breathing together for a moment in silence with a wish to benefit others, uniting heart and mind for the task at hand. While producing Continuations, for the first time in my life I adopted regular attunement sessions for my own often solitary musical work and have continued the practice ever since. We’ve discovered that our attuned work frequently yields a better result than work driven simply by efficiency-oriented thinking mind.

PT: You are very fortunate to have the dual communities of Northern Lights Sangha and the Findhorn Community to engage with, especially in times of great loss and creative struggle.

SO: Yes, I feel gratitude for these two amazing groups every day. I’ve been living in the spiritual community of Findhorn for over ten years now, and our inherent humanistic and ecological missions inform all that I do, here in my Sangha and everywhere I travel. While in the distant past my life has felt at times like pushing the proverbial boulder up the mountain, guided by Buddha mind within these two communities, the CD manifestation unfolded remarkably gracefully. I wish I could claim success practicing equanimity in every corner of my life. In fact, work and relationships are two areas where I do get caught in habit energies more often than I like. Yet, mindfulness practice over the years—be it through dark paths of grieving or inspiring musical projects—has informed and enriched my life. Music, like mindfulness, has the capacity to bring us home to ourselves and in touch with the wordless, refreshing, and healing aspects everywhere surrounding us. With it we can water seeds of beauty, understanding, and love. The piano has been my passion since age six and, long before I knew the term “meditation,” it became a refuge, a place to learn about concentration and dwelling happily in the present moment.

PT: I noted that some of the most common audience responses to your music during the Germany concerts were meditative: “soulful,” “spacious,” “it slowed me down in a pleasant sort of way.”

SO: Yes, though the project may not explicitly be about Dharma, it makes me so very happy to have touched listeners in this way.

PT: Thank you very much, Susanne. May you and your work in this world ever remain soulful and spacious.

Author’s note: On our return from Isle of Skye to Findhorn for our second Day of Mindfulness, I received news that my sole surviving elder brother had died. As I reflect on our stay at Findhorn, although we were across the ocean and far from home, we could not have been in a more accepting, loving, and understanding environment. From my sundown bedroom window at the Shambala Retreat House, I watched the tide wash out over Findhorn Bay, and I knew, despite everything—maybe because of everything—all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.

For more information about Susanne Olbrich and her music, visit www.myspace.com/susanneolbrich or www.susanneolbrich.webs.com.

mb58-ToContinue6Philip Toy, True Mountain of Insight, and his wife Judith have founded three Sanghas in Thay’s tradition. Since 1993, they have hosted mindfulness practice centers—first at Old Path Zendo in Pennsylvania, and for the last twelve years at Cloud Cottage Sangha, Black Mountain, North Carolina. Philip is a poet and jazz pianist. Cloud Cottage Editions is the Toys’ Dharma publishing imprint.

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Beginning to Dance

By Miriam Goldbergmb60-Beginning1 Of Grief

And of grief, carry it not as a burden Though you are bent to breaking, and beyond do not carry it as a burden.

Instead, bow down to it on your knotted hands cracked elbows, scarred knees Bow down in it as deep as you can go.

Fall past the tearing at your own soul through the loss that calls you to leave everything behind and join with what has gone.

Sink into that – until you know the whole universe has changed, irrevocably, that nothing will be the same ever again

until you know this so deeply that you understand nothing ever was the same, ever, ever, ever . . .

The bewildered, anguished weeping of your flesh that so delighted in and feared change now trembles and shakes.

Meet this utter loss. Meet it. And bear witness while it is stripped of everything but its helplessness - no skin, no bones, no face, yet looks you straight in the eye while it crumbles. And becomes something it didn’t know existed,

something that knows grief is the resonant echo of life sounding the depths of change,

and carries grief not as a burden, but as a truth, a gossamer extension of life, light, delicate filaments, illuminating infinity,

in which it bows and begins to dance.

The first time I visited Plum Village I stepped out of the transport van into the small courtyard of New Hamlet. A timeless welcome flowed through the old shutters lining the thick walls around me. I was told to put my bags down, register inside, find my room, and then come back into the dining area for a little more orientation. My way wound through narrow hallways to the barrack style beds in the dorm room. The feel of old stones and something quiet made my body smile.

Free from my luggage, I returned to the courtyard, walked back up the few stairs of the entryway, and turned right towards the dining room. As I stepped over the threshold, a gentle tidal wave of energy washed over and through me. Astonished, and in awe, I couldn’t move, nor did I want to. I stood there in awakened gratitude, feeling the magic and reality of longing fulfilled, as every cell in me was bathed in the experience of Well-Being. My feet felt fully connected to the earth. Everything was open. Everything was here. I had arrived.

In each subsequent retreat at Plum Village, I felt the fruit of practice alive in the air. It was all around: a deeply nourishing presence my whole body received. But even as I recognized it, I did not experience it residing in me or easily accessible through my breath. Inside, I was more aware of a lingering sense of dismay and searching. My breath would slow into something other than peace, a tension or fear, or a deep and almost motionless hiding.

Through the years, the collective presence of the Plum Village Sangha offered me steady solidity and cradled my mind, heart, and body energies. This deep Sangha support allowed and called layers of distress to arise in repeated attempts to be seen and tended by mindfulness, often accompanied by a helplessness and despair that held hostage my suffering and eclipsed love. Even though I felt I was swimming upstream, I knew I was steeping in something as precious as anything I had known: a key to the end of suffering.

I slowly learned which images, concentration, and inner mantras brought me ease. The solidity of earth that supports me as I sit and as I walk, the sun that warms us wherever we are, and gradually, an unwinding of tension into restfulness. My metta meditation became: “May I know that in me which is always peaceful. May I know that in me which is always safe. May I know that in me which is always happy,” and so on. The extended verse followed the forms: “May you know that in you” and “May we know that in us.” The certainty affirmed in this practice kept my rudder set on the truth.

Over many years, and much exploration and perseverance, the “personal contact, images, and sounds,” to which the Fourth Mindfulness Training (Awareness of Suffering) alludes, brought a solid remembrance of Presence I could trust. With right diligence, I felt the fruits of practice offer me increasing nourishment. And gradually, my breath began to harmonize with the eternal Presence of Well-Being until it found its own rhythm and opened its wings into freedom. The loveliness of life began to walk hand in hand with the suffering.

The two poems, “Of Grief ” and “This Life,” describe some treasures I found while walking the Plum Village path. I offer them with gratitude for the Sangha, the Dharma, the Buddha, and Thay.

This Life

What is this life? if not a great lifting of wings

from earth to the heavens, the whole universe opening with the dive into deep space.

Stars’ delighted twinklings welcome us into an exquisitely infinite smile melting our hearts to eternal love.

Here, a gentle knowing whispers us on feather soft wings to that very point where our toes touch unto earth and into our lives.

Our roots sink deep, endlessly renewing.

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