negative emotions


By Richard Brady During the 1996 Plum Village Summer Opening, l stayed in touch with my partner, Elisabeth, through weekly phone calls and regular letter writing. Towards the end of the retreat, I started feeling defensive of my sense of spaciousness on hearing Elisabeth's plans for our time after my return home. Gratefully, I took advantage of an opportunity to share this experience with Sister Jina. After listening quietly to my angst, Sister Jina said, "Richard, in my experience defensiveness is a sign that you are not getting the love you need." I nodded in reply, and she continued, "But, Richard, there is only one person who knows the love you need and can give it to you, and that is yourself. Furthermore, if you give yourself the love you need, you will be able to accept with gratitude the love that Elisabeth offers you."

Sister Jina's wisdom penetrated me but left me perplexed. "Are there practices for giving myself the love I need?" I asked her.  Sister Jina went on to describe a two-stage practice.  In the first stage I was to hold my five­year-old self in my lap as I meditated and shower him with all the love he needed. After several weeks of doing this, I was to switch and be that five-year-old, sitting on this large lap, and to receive all that love. I began right away. It was deeply satisfying for me to enfold my needy child with love. But when it came time to receive that love, I found it impossible. I tried this practice several more times, always with the same results.


During Thay's twenty-one-day retreat in June, 2000, I experienced a great deal of negativity and self-doubt. This time it was my friend, Eveline, who came to my aid. Eveline described a meditation experience in which she had let her negative emotions swirl around her like a whirlwind. She had sat in the eye of this hurricane, its calm center, breathing and smiling. With Eveline holding my hand, l tried her practice. First I saw my recent distress. Then came pain I had experienced at many earlier times of my life. Finally l saw that times of suffering were not the only things swirling around me. They were interwoven with many other life experiences. After breathing and smiling to all my life for a while, I opened my eyes with a new sense of calm.

Returning home from Plum Village, I found myself constantly in the grips of a whirlwind of negative emotions. At times I would remember to find my way to its calm center. This would help, but only for a while.  Then, one night before going to sleep, I read Leslie Rawls's Mindfulness Bell article about transforming her grief over her father's death.  In her article she described experiencing her grief as a whirlwind with her little girl caught up in it. She told about repeatedly trying to bring her little girl down without success.  Finally, she understood that she had to embrace her child, whirlwind and all. As I read this, I realized that in sitting in my own hurricane's eye, I was creating a false separation between myself and my emotions.  Calm was there but not transformation.

The next morning, as l meditated, Sister Jina's self-loving practices came back to me. Suddenly I saw that in attempting to be the child on that big lap, my attention had been entirely on trying to receive love.  I had never felt my little boy's fears and neediness. This time l climbed into my child's skin, fears, neediness and all.  From that place I was able to feel love's embrace for the first time.  Nevertheless, it did not become easy for me to invite up my childhood wounds. While meditating, I might think about my little boy's emotions but not truly experience them. I have found two routes into accessing these emotions. When I have experienced a strong negative emotion such as anger, I have tried to remove myself from the situation in which it has arisen and go sit quietly with my feelings. When I have done this, I have been able to experience childhood emotions underlying my current experience. Also, on several occasions while meditating I have become aware of tensions in my body and, by simply watching these physical sensations have contacted with in them old fears and grief. I did not push away these emotions but accepted them unconditionally. This acceptance not only allowed them to remain present but to intensify. Whatever happened, I held with love and felt myself held with love.

This process is a slow one. I still get defensive, but now l can share this defensiveness with Elisabeth and work with it myself. I have become much better at communicating my relationship needs to Elisabeth and responding lovingly to hers, in part, because I am more able to see doing both as opportunities for growth. With gratitude I thank my Dharma Sisters Elisabeth, Jina, Evelyn, and Leslie for all you have given me.

Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge.

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The Leaves of One Tree

By Le Thu Thuy mb48-TheLeaves1

When we arrived, the hallway in the Claymont Court building was filled with light. It was a cold, windy, winter night and the retreatants came in wearing heavy winter jackets. We hugged each other with deep breaths and beaming smiles. At dinner time, the sound of a gentle bell rang, subduing all noise and motion. The whole room became a completely quiet place. We had our first meal in silence.

Before long, [Dharma teacher] Anh Huong appeared and sat in front of my husband and me. She gave us a gentle, motherly smile, and expressed her appreciation to my husband for driving me here. Anh Huong suggested that, as soon as we finished dinner, he should head home to be with our three teenagers, and assured him that I would be safe during my stay.

Being Nurtured in Body and Soul

As Anh Huong promised, I was safe and well taken care of. I was pampered with fresh country air, well fed with organic vegetarian food, and accompanied by gentle friendship. I noticed that the head cook often joined us in the sitting and indoor walking meditation. This time, she also joined us for the Touching the Earth meditation and sat next to me. At the end, Anh Huong carefully guided us through Hugging Meditation. We hugged each other in three long breaths of respect, appreciation, and love. The cook hugged the person on her right, then me, and by that time her eyes and mine were filled with tears. She carried the aromas of the foods that she had prepared. This fragrance touched my heart and carried my memory back to the cozy days in Vietnam, when I was awakened by the smell of the wonderful foods that my mother cooked for the Vietnamese New Year festival. In silence, I thanked the cook for all her tasteful and nourishing food. She was not just a cook, but a dear sister making meals for us. Some of her desserts were incredibly delicious. She baked the best brownies that I have ever tasted; I swallowed them slowly and savored each small bite.

On this three-day weekend retreat, I could do what I could not find the opportunity to do in my busy life — my mind and heart were with the food and drink in each meal. I loved to hold a cup of tea with both hands and let its heat warm my cold hands. I slowly drank one sip at a time. I felt the tea being absorbed gently by the tiny cells of my whole body. As the night came, and in the silence of the warm companionship of my two roommates, I quickly fell asleep. It was more like a vacation than a religious retreat as I actually had the time and space to rest.

A Daughter in a Confucian Home

Within the Sangha’s cradle, I allowed myself to be fragile. The little wounded girl inside of me had a chance to breathe, to sob, and to ask for compassion and acceptance. In her Dharma talks Anh Huong showed us how to practice no-self by looking at our hands. Using mindful and compassionate breathing, we looked deeply at our ancestors’ traits that exist in each vessel of our hands. Joining her invitation, I found my own suffering intertwined with my ancestors’ torments. By deeply contemplating the past, I recognized my mother, the only daughter of a well-established family that was deeply influenced by the teachings of Confucius.

My mother grew up with her voice being ignored and her presence considered irrelevant. In that culture, a daughter was worth nothing because her father believed that she would soon belong to another family when she married; he would invest very little in her education. My mother had a fifth-grade education — her younger brothers went to college abroad and later became a doctor, a professor, and a law enforcement officer.

I was more fortunate. My parents worked very hard to give me the best education in Saigon. Witnessing the lack of education and mistreatment that his only sister endured, my father offered me the same opportunities, attention, affection, and love that my brothers received.

Because we did not carry my mother’s family name, my siblings and I were often treated as outsiders by her father. Sadly, no one was aware of the seeds of unworthiness that played a big part in my mother’s identity and were quietly being passed on to her children. I often felt insecure and left out, while my siblings set ambitious goals to establish their own identities and reputation, perhaps as a way to mask their feelings of being rejected. We may achieve wealth and certain positions in our society, but we are often lost in coping with our frustration and resentment toward the maternal family.

I learned that the collective karma is much more powerful than I realized. As I consider my own past and my present way of living, I realize that I fill my days with activities to expand my intellect, to make acquaintances, to earn a comfortable living, and to help others, without realizing that the deep seeds in my consciousness are controlling my thoughts, my speech, and my actions. My knowledge of Buddhism and Christianity, including the satisfaction of doing good deeds, was not effective in reducing the potentially destructive effects of negative emotions. But in calmness and mindfulness, the Buddha’s wisdom and the Sangha’s compassion helped to shed light on this dark corner of mine.

My Grandfather’s Secret Love

I remembered spending many summer nights at my grandfather’s home. He had shown his care and love for me in private. He boiled hot water for me to bathe, told me stories of his childhood with his younger sister, his love for the first wife who died young while giving birth to their first son, read books, and instilled in me a love for literature and history. I no longer blame him for not being able to display that soft, gentle part of himself in public. I now understand that many men of his generation, living in such a culture, would not have known how to behave any differently. My resentment was melting away as my heart filled with his love for me and mine for him.

Walking on this path of understanding and love makes my soul soft and cleansed. Mistakes and regrets are a part of the past, while hope and happiness are right here under my steps.

Healing the Past

We live six hundred miles away from where my grandfather was buried twenty years ago. I never went to visit his grave. Modern transportation offered many opportunities to do so, but for many years, I have down-played the importance of such a visit and often found good excuses for not doing so.

Since I got back from this retreat, the newly found understanding and love for my grandfather made me, for the first time, want to visit his resting place. My husband drove my mom and me to Canada to visit his family and my uncle, who liked the idea that all of us would visit my grandfather. My uncle drove his wife, my first cousin, my mother, my husband, and me to the cemetery. He and my husband had a bonding talk in the front seat while my mom and I caught up on the stories of our lives with my aunt and my cousin in the back. We had a lovely time during the ride. It was a cold, windy day at the graveyard, but I dressed properly for the weather and felt warmed by the family love and reconnection. I stood in front of my grandfather’s grave and lit the incense. With mindful breaths, I first expressed my gratitude and respect for all the ancestors and then offered my wholesome feelings to my grandfather.

As we left the cemetery, a new chapter in the account of my maternal family tree was being written. It would record the fact that my grandfather has always been in me and will always be in my descendants. The DNA will always support this and nobody can deny or alter this fact. Gender, last name, and success will not signify how we relate to each other; real blood, true love, and a deep understanding will. Each individual has their own place in the universe. My experience proves that by deeply understanding the past and mindfully living in the present moment, it is possible to transform past mistakes and change the course of the present and future.

To Live as One

We’re all the leaves of one tree, We’re all the leaves of one tree, The time has come for all to live as one We’re all the leaves of one tree

Lately, each time I sing that song with the Sangha, I see that my grandfather is joyfully singing it with me and we let each word sink deeply into each vessel of our body. Nothing could take us apart! I am a leaf of one tree just like my grandfather is and we are “falling gracefully without regrets” into the cradle of the Three Jewels.

Le Tmb48-TheLeaves2hu Thuy, Opening of the Awakening Heart, has been practicing for many years with the Boat of Compassion Sangha and the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, Virginia (MPCF) Sangha.

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