#27 Autumn 2000

Dharma Talk: Taking the Hand of Suffering

By Thich Nhat Hanh Some days the sky is completely clear, without a single cloud. When we look up, we see the blue sky – very peaceful, very powerful. The blue sky is always there for us. When it rains and storms, clouds cover the sky, but we are confident the blue sky is still there. And we are at peace, because we know that blue sky and fine weather will return after the rain.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Sometimes our mind is very clear like a blue sky. We have so much happiness. We practice walking meditation with our brothers and sisters in the Sangha, and feel so happy. Our hearts are at peace and open, with a lot of space and freedom like the blue sky. We feel light and free, and we smile. We are kind to everyone. We make ourselves happy and we make others happy. If we practice mindfulness on days like that, our happiness will increase, and so will the happiness of those around us. We know how to benefit from the times when our mind is as clear as the vault of the blue sky without any clouds. That is a very important practice.

But there are also times when our mind is not clear. It is not at peace, it is not free. We have worries, afflictions, and sadness in us, like the sky has clouds. We cannot see the blue sky of our minds anymore. We see only clouds in all directions.

Sometimes we are not angry or in despair, but our heart is full of clouds. This is a very common state of mind—the absence of happiness. Just a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of sadness, and we don't know whether it is real anxiety or real sadness. We know that it's not happiness, but we are not sure that it's suffering. We're bored. Everything is too ordinary; nothing is clear or bright. As the poet said, "Today the flowers rise high, and I am sad. I don't know why." When a day passes with that kind of sadness and boredom, it's a terrible waste. We want to get beyond that sadness and boredom, and touch the blue sky.

In the sutra, the Buddha taught us the way of changing the peg. When we have a mental formation that we don't like very much, we can change it with another mental formation, like a carpenter changing a peg that holds two planks of wood together. The carpenter hammers a new peg into the place where the rotten peg is; the rotten peg goes out. That is changing the peg. When we are bored, we can change the peg by bringing another kind of mind along, a mind that is fresher, happier. Boredom has arisen because this freshness has not yet manifested. Now, what can we do for this freshness to take the place of our sadness and boredom? An elder brother or sister can help us, or a younger brother or sister can help us. They can rescue us from our sadness. That person is as fresh and joyful as a morning bird. That person comes and takes our hand, and leads us out of our sadness, our darkness. Thanks to the presence of the Sangha, thanks to a fellow practitioner, we are able to get out of this darkness. Or maybe we can do it on our own. We have the sutras, poems, practices, and short stories that can help us develop positive mental formations. In this way, we "change the peg."

There is another aspect of the practice. Instead of changing the peg, we allow the feeling to stay, because our desire to change the peg immediately sometimes has a negative side to it. When we have some kind of sadness or anxiety, no happiness, we should embrace our sadness, our anxiety. Don't be in a hurry to get rid of it. We should ask, "My mental formation, are you suffering or not? Are you my enemy, my little mental formation?" Don't treat it like an enemy. Don't be in a hurry to find a way to oppress it. Embrace it and allow it to stay. "Dear mental formation, I know you are there. Now stay with me a little bit. Are you really suffering?"

Our mind is like the sky. Sometimes the sky just has blueness, sometimes it has clouds. Why do we have to be so anxious? The Earth has different climates and weather, and our mind does too. The sky is changeable and people are also changeable. There is morning rain, thunder, sunshine. There are times when the sky is cloudy, times when it is dull, times when it is blue and clear. Some people have boredom or sadness from time to time. It's quite normal. We say to our boredom or our sadness, "I know you are there." It's okay. And we have to be happy, although the feeling is sadness. We accept that this is real. This sadness is real, this anxiety is real. It couldn't be anything else. So our new attitude is to embrace it, to be its friend. And then, it becomes very easy to bear. It's just anxiety or sadness, and it's not so difficult to bear.

Don't think that happiness is the absence of all suffering. If we understand it like that, we have not understood happiness. We don't have to oppress or push all our suffering out of us in order to have happiness. We can have happiness if our suffering is still within us. It's like gardening. If we are good gardeners, if we garden organically, we know our garden will have flowers, and it will have garbage. If there are flowers, there is garbage. A good gardener will never burn the garbage or dump it somewhere else. They keep the garbage in order to make com­post. The garbage, the compost makes the flowers and fruits of the garden grow better. If we want to have the vegetables and the fruit, we must have the garbage.

As practitioners, we know that our minds are gardens. In our minds, there are positive, pleasant mental formations, and there are negative, unpleasant mental formations. To be good gardeners, we need to have a heart of great understanding. We have to accept both the flowers and the garbage in our garden. When we see garbage, we are not angry or sad, because we know the garbage can always be transformed into flowers.

We may want to push away unpleasant mental formations, to transform them as quickly as possible. But I suggest that when the sky of your mind is cloudy, you practice to give rise to a kind of caring. Return to that mental formation, make its acquain­tance. "Mental formation, are you my suffering? Are you my enemy? I know you are my friend. You have been my friend in the past, you are my friend in the present, and you will be my friend in the future. So we should learn how to live together with peace and joy, and with a non-dualistic attitude." It is not possible to have flowers without compost, without garbage. It is not possible to have happiness without sadness. Because of our suffering, we really know how to maintain our happiness. Some days, our cloudiness lasts a long time, and then, when the sun comes out, we see how wonderful it is. To accept the rainy days is very important.

When it rains, we are not afflicted, we are not suffering. We accept the rain. We cannot go outside. We close the door to keep warm. We have our lunch and our tea inside. Our mind is the same. When our mind is clear, we do different things than we do when our mind is cloudy. We should not be afraid. If our mind is dull, we know how to practice. If it is clear, we know how to practice. We do not oppose any kind of mind. When we sit down with our dull mental formation with all our caring and love, we will begin to understand it, and we will say, "Cloudy mental formation, I really need you. Because of you, I have the capacity to see my beautiful mental formations. And I don't want to oppress you. You are not my enemy. I know you are necessary for the manifesta­tion and growth of positive mental formations." When we know how to take hold of our cloudy mental formations and do walking meditation with them, then quite naturally, the situation becomes easier to bear. We no longer have a desire to push it away. We just want to take its hand and look deeply at it. Then the situation will become more bearable and we can accept a day that is rainy and windy very easily. That is my practice.

This practice is based on the non-dualistic way of looking at things. I asked a very young sister, "Is your mind sometimes cloudy like the sky today?" She replied, "Yes." She is still very young, but she still has cloudy days in her mind. I asked, "What do you do when you have those cloudy days in your mind? Tell me." She said she was not worried, because although she was still very young, she had the experience of those moments in the past, and they always give way to clear moments later. So they do not disturb her. She did not have to push them away, and she was not anxious about her cloudy mind. She also has the seeds of happiness. And her elder brothers and sisters have seeds of happiness and they can water her seeds. When seeds of happiness manifest, the cloudiness disappears.

A famous nun in the eleventh century wrote a gatha. She said, "Birth, sickness, old age, and death are just everyday things. Why do we always pray to be liberated from them? If we spend our whole time trying to get away from birth, sickness, old age, and death, we will just be more caught in them." If we can take the hand of birth, sickness, old age, and death, it's no problem. But if we want to run away, we want to push away, we will be caught even more, because in that attitude is struggling. That is the dualistic view, and we get caught.

Our method is not to have that dualistic attitude in our practice, but to find a way to look at our mental formation with the eyes of non-dualism, with love, as a friend. We must know how to invite that suffering to sit down with us, and ask, "My dear suffering, what is your nature? Are you my enemy?" We will take the hand of our suffering and do walking meditation, sitting meditation. And we know that the suffering will help us see and experience peace and joy, liberation and happiness. We have to be grateful to our suffering, because without suffering, we cannot grow up and have the capacity to accept the great joy of liberation. Therefore, the attitude of running away from, destroying, or oppressing our suffering is not an intelligent attitude.

One day in waking meditation, I embraced my state of mind, and I asked, "Are you really suffer­ing?" It wasn't really suffering. It was just kind of a normal thing, like a cloud in the sky. After the rain, there will be sunshine, and after the sunshine, there will be rain. And I could see there was no need to get rid of this mental formation. "I accept you as you are. I can be happy with you." And therefore, it didn't make me suffer anymore. I could live with it very naturally, as something wonderful. "Your presence is natural. I accept you as you are." I invite you to practice this way, and you will see it is a wonderful practice.

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I would like to offer you an exercise. It may take weeks to do; it may take days. It's up to you. It's not the kind of homework you do with a pencil and a sheet of paper. You will have to do it with a lot of walking meditation, sitting meditation, and mindful breathing. You may like to ask for help from another brother or sister, so you can do the work in a deeper way. The focus of the exercise is a period of time you considered hard for you. This difficult time belongs to the past, but you are grounded in the present moment. You bring the past into the present moment, and consider that moment as the object of your inquiry, the object of your meditation. Practice looking deeply into it. This lesson is not the work of the intellect. The intellect can play a certain role in this exercise, but you need your heart. You need your mindfulness, concentration, and insight—body and mind united—in order to practice looking deeply and to recognize every aspect of the crisis.

First, look at the event in space and time, and describe it. When did it start? How long did it last? Where did it happen? How did it happen? What triggered that difficult period? Look at the elements within you that helped trigger that difficult moment, and the elements without—around you—that helped trigger it. Did it come out of the blue? What ground served as its base for manifestation? Look deeply to recognize the roots of that affliction, of that difficult period of time. Some elements are close, and you can easily recognize them. Some elements are far away, rooted in the past, maybe in the time of your parents or ancestors.

You can always ask another person to help you to identify the elements that came together and brought you to that difficult period of time. When you feel you have finished, you may tell yourself that there must be more. If you practice looking more deeply, you can identify other elements as the roots of the affliction. And you can always rely on the Sangha eyes, on your brothers and sisters in the Dharma to help you to see more clearly. How did you feel? How did you behave in terms of thought, words, action? How did you react? You acted and reacted. You need a lot of concentration. Remember how you behaved in terms of thinking, speech, and action. And again, you can ask your friend who was there, "Dear friend, how did I look at that period of time?" You have to bow to him, "Please, please, help." And he will help you see yourself. Your eyes alone may not be enough. You need the Sangha eyes to see the situation better. In Plum Village, we know that any exercise could be initiated by ourselves, but the work of looking deeply, of having deeper insight, deeper understanding, can be supported by our brothers and sisters in the Dharma. When you do this exercise, please go to the brothers and sisters who were with you during the difficult time, and ask them to help you look and reveal all aspects of the crisis, both inside and outside.

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You were suffering. How did you feel in your heart, in your body? Did you apply the teaching you have received in order to calm down, to get relief? Or did you just allow the suffering to overwhelm you? Did you ask for help from your brothers, from your sisters, from your teacher? Or did you just allow yourself to be seized by your suffering, and become a victim of your suffering? You have to be honest with yourself.

What if, in the difficult moment, you tried walking meditation or sitting meditation, but it didn't help at all? Why didn't it help? Did you ask for help? Did you tell your big brother that you tried hard with the walking, the sitting, but did not feel relief? Did you lose your faith in the practice? Because in difficult moments, you would rely on your practice to get better, and if you did not succeed, you may tell yourself that the practice is not effective, and you lose some trust in the practice. You have to look at all these things with courage.

Did you blame the other person, the person who you believe triggered Hell for you? Or did you blame the situation? You lost your confidence in the Dharma; you lost your confidence in the Sangha. Your faith in the Dharma and the Sangha became very weak, and you lost the confidence in your practice, because you did not get quick relief after some time trying. It did not happen. Did you blame the other person? Did you blame the situation? Did you blame the Sangha?

And in your suffering, did you have the tendency to punish the other person, or punish the Sangha? Did you have the idea of punishing, even if you did not do anything to punish? If you believe that the other person made you suffer, it's natural that you want to make him or her suffer a little bit, so you can get relief. You may believe that punishing him or her, or the Sangha will give you a little relief. That's a natural tendency of humans.

Did you have the idea of shutting off from everyone? You no longer wanted to have communication with other people. Did you have the idea of boycotting the Sangha as a form of punishment? "I don't want to talk to them anymore. I hate everyone. They are not really my brothers or sisters. They didn't know how to be compassionate and understanding." Did you want to punish by shutting yourself off from the Sangha? "I don't want to see them. I don't want to talk to them. I don't want to listen to them. I have suffered so much." Did you have the idea of running away? Just quitting? Running away is a form of punishment. "Because the Sangha is not nice to me, I run away. I don't appreci­ate you." If not the Sangha, but your partner or your family, your society or your church, it's the same.

In your suffering, you might have felt that you are completely, absolutely alone. Cut off. No one in the Sangha was able to understand you. No sharing of suffering was possible. Did you intend to look for someone who can share your anger, your suffering, your fear? Because the tendency is that when you get angry with someone, you have the tendency to blame that someone for having made you suffer, and you want someone else to support your view that that person is bad, that he or she always makes us suffer. So, did you seek for an ally? Did you find someone who supported you that way, who agreed with you that the other person is impossible, the other person is always making other people suffer? Did you get relief when you found someone like that? Or were you lucky to find someone who did not support your view, but helped you practice looking more deeply, in order to understand the problem more deeply?

Did anyone sit close to you and say, "Dear friend, I know that you suffer. I am here for you. I support you in the practice." And did anyone tell you that the best way to handle the situation is with compassion and understanding. Compassion and understanding are the instruments of the bodhisattva. If you apply your compassion and your understanding to the situation, you will get relief very quickly. Anything you do will come from understanding or compassion. The act of blaming isn't motivated by understanding and compassion. The act of punishing isn't motivated by understanding and compassion. Shutting off from others, running away, all these things do not seem to be motivated by understanding and compassion.

What will you do if you are plunged into that situation again? Would you do the same things? Or would you behave differently? Have you learned anything from that time when you suffered so much? How did you come out of it? Did you do anything to get out, or did it just die out slowly, the difficult moment, that difficult period? Did something happen or did someone intervene so that the period of Hell ended? How did it stop—abruptly or slowly? You have to remember, because everything is imperma­nent, even your suffering.

Did anyone remind you during that period of time that the suffering is going to end? It will not last forever. Did anyone remind you of that? Suffering, like any other thing, is impermanent. And we know that suffering will end some day. You have to remember that. Because during the time of suffering, we may think that it will last forever and you will not be able to survive the suffering. It's like a strong emotion, a storm. The storm always stays for some time, and any storm will stop after some time. Your suffering is the same. Did anyone remind you of that?

Every time you suffer, you have to remember that suffering is impermanent. Suffering will not be there forever. Seeing this, you get relief already. "I wish that it would not stay too long. I know it will die, but I wish it would die quickly." But wishing is not the only thing you can do. You can do something in order to speed up the ending of the suffering. How did you get out of your difficult moment? Did it end by itself? Did someone help you? Did something happen to rescue you? Or did you get out of it because you had already hit the bottom? And when you hit the bottom, you begin to emerge again.

This is a very important exercise. We have to do it totally, as deeply as possible, because we can learn a lot. Through the practice of looking deeply, transformation will take place. After you finish the exercise, you know that the next time you suffer will be different. You know how to go through it in a much lighter way, smiling. And you are no longer afraid. Difficult moments may come, but you know how to handle them.

Bodhisattvas are not afraid, because they know how to deal with the storms, the difficulties. They know how to handle these difficulties. Bodhisattvas are not people who don't have difficulties. Bodhisattvas are those who know how to handle the difficult times. You are a student of the bodhisattvas, or you want to become a bodhisattva yourself. Therefore, you have to learn to hear with your eye, to look with your ear, to listen with your tongue, to speak with your body, to take care, because bodhisattvas are always using their eyes, their ears, their tongues, their bodies, and their minds to get through the difficult moments.

When you have understanding and compassion, you only think in a way that can bring you space and relief. You will only say things that can bring more harmony and relief, and you will only do things that can bring about relief and reconciliation. And the most important thing to do is to generate more understanding and compassion. If you know how to apply them in the three levels of action—thinking, speaking, and acting—then the relief can come very quickly. Reconciliation can take place very quickly.

In the future, you are likely to be plunged into a period of time like that again. If you are not prepared, you will suffer just like the last time. So look deeply at this difficult time, and prepare so that when an event like that happens again, you'll be more ready to handle it. And you have a brother or a sister who will be able to step in and help you go in the direction of understanding and compassion. When you begin to think and act and speak in terms of compassion, peace begins to settle in you and relief comes very quickly. These are the experiences of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. And those of us who have practiced know that in these moments, understanding and compassion should be generated by you and by the people who practice with you. The energy of under­standing and compassion can bring relief right away. It can shorten the period of crisis, so you begin to experience joy again.

When you were in school writing a thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation, you spent one year or even two years to write on this project. But what you get is only a diploma. This exercise is very important. If you do it totally and deeply, you get liberation, you get happiness. So invest yourself into the practice. Out of our success and our insight, we can help many people around us. This is not a dissertation to be submitted to a teacher; this is a real practice. This is a gift you make to yourself, to society, and to the world. Whether you can help people, society, living beings in the future depends on the success you get in this kind of practice. So invest yourself entirely into the exercise, and if you want to share it with Thay, please don't hesitate to do so. If you want to share it with another brother or sister, please do so. This is not for a degree or a diploma, this is for your libera­tion. your happiness, and the liberation and happiness of many, many people.

Photos by Nicholaes Roosevelt.

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From the Editor

This issue of The Mindfulness Bell has much to offer. In his Dharma talk, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us how we may learn to take the hand of suffering when it arises, and gives us an exercise to help deepen our mindfulness and expand our ability to deal with difficult times. In other articles, several practitioners share their experience with practice in difficult circumstances. The Daily Practice Section includes an examination of decision-making processes in one Sangha, a song, an article about a lay Sangha's second body practice, examination of two of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and the Discourse on Absolute Truth, which was shared with recent Plum Village retreatants. The Family Practice Section offers tales of toddlers, a kids' mini-day of mindfulness, and an examination of the New Testament parable, "The Prodigal Son," applied to mindful parenting. Sharings of the Heart is a new Young Adult Section of The Mindfulness Bell but we hope the less-young folks will enjoy it as well. Finally, this issue contains the Retreat Schedules and a complete Sangha Directory. We hope you enjoy it. Please let us know.

Be well,

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Demons into Butterflies

Chronic Illness as Dharma Teacher By Hannah S. Wilder

As a child, I was always in motion. I carried this energy into adulthood; it ran my life like a demon. As an adult with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), I have brain chemistry that operates like two extremes on a dial: scattered/distractible or hyper-focused. As a child, I found respite in reading or lying beside a stream, watching tadpoles change into frogs. I found kindred souls in the streambed, and learned from them that transformation is natural.

The first fifty years of my life were a whirl of ceaseless activity. I rested only when I had pushed myself so far that I collapsed with a cold or flu, or when I found myself stuck in a subway tunnel or traffic. I always carried a book or writing implements, something to busy my mind and still my impatience. I completed several educational degrees, worked around the world, married, had a child, and divorced.

Then, I decided consciously to stop and raise my daughter in a quiet town on the Maine seacoast. I was on my own in raising my daughter and taking care of our home. I wanted very much to "slow down and live," but circumstances and habit pushed on. Thay tells the story of a man riding quickly on a horse. A bystander yells at him, "Where are you going?" and the man replies, "I don't know. Ask the horse!" I was like that man on the horse, propelled by my habit energies.

In the mid-eighties I began a recovery program from growing up in an alcoholic family. At a week - long residential program, a therapist had me portray my life, turning up the volume so that I could see how my busyness was a way of running from pain that only created more suffering. Each person in my group represented a demand in my life. I gave them each a line, and they all said their lines to me at once, so I could experience the overwhelming nature of how I lived: "Earn the money!" "Raise the child!" "Clean the house!" "Help me!" "Listen to me!" "Take care of yourself!" "Mow the lawn!" It was a vivid and clear picture, but still, I didn't stop. At home, I slid back into doing many things at the same time. My behavior was reinforced by others' admiration of my ability to accomplish so much.

Also in the mid-eighties, I first heard about Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching. The message that struck me was "do one thing at a time." I decided to try an experiment. Working in my home one weekend, I began one task. When a second task occurred to me, I wrote it down instead of starting it. I finished the first task, and then completed the rest of the list, one task at a time. I got just as many things done, but felt much more peaceful at the end of the day. I had taken the first step on the path of transformation to a more serene life. In 1993,1 received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and in 1995,1 joined the Order of Interbeing. Shortly after that, a series of challenges turned my world upside down.

Within two years the man I had loved all my life and my brother both died in protracted and agonizing battles with cancer. My parents had died just a few years before. Overworking helped distract me from my losses, but it was too much. My health collapsed. I was in terrible pain and had disturbing symptoms, such as blurred vision and extreme fatigue. I was ready to "stop, calm, rest, and heal," but my family had all died and I still had to support myself.

I accepted an invitation to spend the summer writing in a friend's house on the coast of Somerset in England. There, I rested and wrote, but my health continued to be problematic. Each time I took a long walk, I got extremely tired and felt a lot of pain for several days. After I returned to the States, it gradually became clear that what I'd thought was an acute but curable and known condition was instead a chronic and mysterious one. I continued to have frequent, intense pain, fatigue, and cloudy mental functioning. Doctors shrugged. It looked hopeless. I felt shock and despair. Fortunately, there was a patient group that exchanged information and held a national conference. At length, I got an accurate diagnosis and began taking medication for symptomatic relief. But I was severely depleted, and had to leave my job, with no financial reserve.

How does a chronically-ill person earn a living? Building on my mental health counseling and teaching/mentoring background, I began training to be a personal and business coach and opened a private practice via phone and Internet. Many times I have taken classes by phone, lying in bed, too tired to move. Two or three kind friends gave me moral support. Things seemed to be calming down at last. Then, I received a gift in the form of a daylight robbery. My computer, with three months of data, was stolen. Following this, there was a rash of gang-related activity in which a number of women were tortured. I somehow managed to pack and move into a friend's home. The gift allowed me to see that I could make a move, when I had thought it was almost impossible.

Soon after, with the help of a Dharma sister who found me a place to live, I moved to Virginia. Just before the robbery I had started my first ghostwriting job, which, fortunately, was portable. I was safe and had become a professional writer, something I had always wanted. I could support myself while working on my coaching career. I breathed a sigh of relief. But in the winter I realized that the years of stress and trauma, and my chronic condition had brought my body close to a state of collapse. Soon I had two more diagnoses: chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. I was no longer who I had been, at any level. Constant fatigue, head and body aches, memory loss and confusion, extreme sensitivity to noise, light, and an extreme awareness of other people's moods and energy were my new companions. By February 1999,1 could sit up to write only an hour a day.

The Dharma was in my face, so to speak, and the mindfulness teacher of pain was in my whole body. To get better and maintain the delicate balance necessary to function from day to day, I had to learn to practice twenty-four hours a day. Living the way of non-awareness, my body had been depleted, leaving little margin for forgetfulness. Dietary mistakes, weather changes, overworking, or stress may cause my symptoms to flare up. This means I must stay awake as much as possible, and take exquisite care not to let stress build up. I must notice each need—rest, food, fresh air, or quiet—and take immediate steps to meet it. Not responding invites a temporal flare-up, and also progression of the condition.

As a chronically-ill person, I sometimes reflect the quality of impermanence to those who are still healthy and strong. In a youth and perfection-oriented society, it can be challenging to find a comfortable place for aging and illness. I see people trying to separate themselves from my illness, to explain it in ways that exclude the possibility it could happen to them. My compassion for them comes from remembering when I was in their position, feeling frustrated at my inability to help another person in some active way.

Now more than ever, I understand that being present and listening deeply will help relieve suffering. This realization inspired me to begin asking people with chronic illness, "What attitudes and behaviors are supportive and healing for you? How can we educate our medical professionals, loved ones, friends, coworkers and neighbors so that they understand what we are experiencing and what we would like from them?" Perhaps compiling the answers in an article or short book would help others learn to relieve the suffering of those living with chronic conditions. Of course, the short answer is mindful behavior, compassion, and understanding.

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Medical people who have no treatment or explanation often feel unsure how to live with their uncertainty, and, out of their own "dis-ease," respond in ways that blame the patient. There are still poorly educated doctors who dismiss the condition or insult their patients. Some of those who take the condition seriously adopt a certainty that their specialty has the answer: if they are surgeons, it's a brain stem psychiatrists, it's depression and antidepressants will do the trick. Sometimes the variety of simplistic and radically different explanations and cures is overwhelming. Maybe there is a way to convey mindfulness to the health-care professionals as well, and let them know what it feels like on the receiving end of so much confusing and contradictory information, how it feels to be disbelieved and dismissed. So, added to living with the condition and earning a living is the challenge of education those who could be supportive.

In my other life, as I now call it, I loved to travel from snowy fields of the Northeast to high-desert mountains in the Southwest. Now I sit down in my lounge chair, lean back, put on my headphones, and open my laptop computer, traveling via the Internet or telephone to visit clients in California or Brazil, friends and Dharma brothers and sisters in Scotland or Scandinavia. I appreciate that the Internet was developed when I most needed it. Remaining in the comfort of home I can be in contact with the whole world! I speak to someone in Brazil or Australia, then go outside for a walk beside the stream to visit my friendly tadpoles.

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Aside from some persistent financial stress—selling a home to pay medical bills and living expenses often goes with chronic illness—and occasional discomfort, mine is a happy life. I have peace, beauty, and friendship, near and far. I am able to serve, by teaching tele-classes on mindfulness, by developing a program for mindful awareness at work, by coaching people in various walks of life, by leading two international groups of coaches by telephone, by mentoring a new aspirant to the Order of Interbeing, and by helping build our local Sangha. I am endlessly grateful for so many things.

It is essential to maintain the balance between accepting "what is" and continuing to hope and search for a possible cure, to strengthen myself. When I first moved to Virginia, I could not walk up my very steep driveway, so I drove down in my car, parked and walked across the rickety bridge to get the mail. Little by little, I walked farther each day, mindful of how much was just enough. By last summer, I was able to walk down and up my neighbor's driveway, swim a few laps around their pond, and then walk home up my hill. I have learned to replace grief at being an impaired person with gratitude for being able to walk and talk and look fairly "normal", and appreciation for the wonderful gifts around me. There are now times when I can dance!

I have improved faster than anyone else I know with this condition, and it's still with me. Applying my knowledge of holistic health and my research expertise on the Internet, I created a program for myself of nutritional supplements; a strict diet; a daily movement routine combining yoga, chi-gong, sa-long (in the Bon tradition), and mindful movements learned from Dharma teacher Thu Nguyen and Thay's tape. I meditate at least once a day sitting, and also do walking meditation. Practicing daily by myself, weekly with a Sangha, and sometimes traveling to Days of Mindfulness with Anh Huong  and Thu Nguyen sustain me. I am constantly reminded that being slow, being present, is all that is needed. I read the seventh of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings very often!

The tendency to wonder exactly what mistake brought me to this state, to rush around seeking an immediate cure, to worry about the future is still in my store consciousness. I do not water these seeds. I do not revisit my losses. And I remember Thay's words: "This is the shore of suffering, the shore of illbeing, despair, fear, and anger. I don't want to stay on this shore. I want to cross over to the other shore, the shore of well-being, forgiveness, peace, and compassion... When you practice to identify what is there and look deeply into the nature of what is there, you are practicing prajna paramita, and the insight you get will bring you to the other shore, the shore of liberation and well-being."

I am here, learning the gentle ways of butterflies as they light on flowers or settle at the edges of the stream looking for moisture on a hot summer day, sitting so still that the white-tailed deer, the wild turkeys, and the baby rabbits do not consider me alien. It is a peaceful, magical valley, an island of the self, a true home. And it goes where I go, through my constant practice.

Hannah S. Wilder, True Good Heart, practices with Cloud Floating Free Sangha in Charlottesville, Virginia. She can be reached by e-mail  at Hannah@Wiseheartcoach.com and would like to hear from others who are practicing with chronic conditions, teaching mindfulness at work, or those who are experts at resting.

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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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Got White Rice?

By Lien Shutt I was born in Saigon in 1964. My birth mother was a clerk at the American Embassy. When she realized that she was dying of cancer, she asked her boss to help her find Americans to adopt my older sister and me. In 1973, European Americans adopted us. Because my adoptive parents worked for the State Department, part of my upbringing was overseas. In between these overseas posts, my parents moved the family to Virginia with the specific purpose of, in their words, "Americanizing the children."

In the early 1970s, the concept of "multiculturalism" had not been developed, at least not in my parents' consciousness. Although my parents sponsored two refugee families from Vietnam, I had no other consistent interaction with other Vietnamese. The concept of helping me or my siblings retain or access our racial and cultural heritage was not part of my parents' thinking.

My parents were good-hearted, kind people who raised us the best they knew how. They both told me that going to Vietnam in the late 1960s changed their lives, opening up their worldview. But they are also the products of their upbringing, generation, and culture. For them, the United States' overseas actions were helpful and necessary efforts to assist "developing" nations. In no way did they consider their actions race-based.

As part of my "Americanization," I was baptized and raised Presbyterian. My mother was a devout Christian and attended church regularly. As a child, I was required to attend church regularly. In my early teens, I realized that what was preached and what was practiced were two very different things and I refused to go to church anymore. I even became quite antireligion. But while my experience with Christianity did not work, I knew something was missing in my life.

Glimpses of Buddhism wafted in and out of my life. During my first year of college, a good friend and I talked about learning to meditate, but nothing ever came of it. In my early twenties, I had a Thai friend who practiced Buddhism and had an altar. I wanted to ask her about the practice, but somehow never did. And then we grew apart. Four years ago, when I first moved to San Francisco, I lived just down the street from a Zen temple. I walked by its locked doors several times and noticed the people going in and out. I did not see any people of color. After several months, I got up enough nerve to call the temple. No one returned my call.

Then, in 1997, a Vietnamese American friend had told me about the Day of Mindfulness at Spirit Rock. I had read a few of Thich Nhat Hanh's books, including Peace Is Every Step and The Heart of Understanding, but had never been to any of his events.

My friends and I arrived together and found a spot among the large crowd on the hills. The event had not started. I wandered around, feeling overwhelmed by the size of the crowd (approximately 2000) and the fact that it was mostly people of European ancestry. I sat down on a little knoll behind the crowd. There, looking at the bamboo stage with two tall palm fronds swaying in the wind, I began to cry. I tried to resist. I reminded myself that I was among strangers. But, against my own will, I felt my heart softening. I cried uncontrollably, with large, gulping sobs, and felt release.

I also felt a sense of coming home.

Later, as Sister Chan Khong led the Touching the Earth exercise, this feeling deepened. The ritual grounded me. I had always thought that I needed to return to Vietnam before I could really "heal." The practice helped me understand that my connection to the universe was not dependent upon a sense of place. It also helped me see that the universe can contain all our emotions, including our pain. For me, the exercise rested on the vital Buddhist principle that we can touch peace by accepting the here and now.

I believe that Buddhism has a distinct resonance for Vietnamese- or Asian Pacific Americans such as myself. For Asian Americans, there is a level of understanding, a level of affinity that comes from a family or cultural background we may not even recognize until we begin sitting. Buddhism has a certain flavor for us that it may not have for others.

An analogy I keep thinking of relates to eating rice. In Saigon, I grew up eating white rice almost every day. Here in the West, we are told that white rice is not as nutritionally sound as brown. Trying to be health conscious, I have eaten brown rice, but I prefer the taste of white rice and eat it almost exclusively. There is nothing like the taste of white rice for me. And the smell of it cooking is the most comforting smell in the world!

Currently, I practice with a Sangha of people of color. We are a nondenominational group. I tried several other Sanghas in the Bay Area, but was turned off by the lack of racial diversity and the coolness of my reception. While I acknowledge that my path back to Buddhism adds its own unique difficulties, Sanghas must address their lack of diversity if they want to be accessible to Asians and other people of color.

On one level, lack of diversity in our Sanghas reflects current race conditions as a whole. At a People of Color retreat last year, many Asian Pacific Americans and mixed-race Asian Pacific Americans talked about how Buddhism was part of their family background but they had not been aware of it because of assimilation or acculturation.

On another level, it can be difficult when European Americans do not understand why practicing with a Sangha that does not have many people of color "should be" a difficulty. Many do not contradict my experience outright, but repeatedly talk about how finding refuge with a Sangha is a hard task for all of us. They move immediately to offering absolute truths. On one level, I agree, but on another, it is only a subtler form of racism.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about relative and absolute truths by discussing the way we look at ocean waves. When we look at waves, we may decide that there are big waves and little waves, or high waves and low waves. We may see the beginning of a wave and the end of a wave. But if we look deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. Water is its essential self. As long as a wave thinks of itself as a wave, it may become sad or happy, with superiority or inferiority complexes, and it may fear death. When the wave sees that it is water, it will never have such worries. It transcends the notions of space and time, and comparative judgments.

Relative truth is a wave. Absolute truth is water. This teaching is true for all of us. The absolute  truth is that we are all connected. We are the same. The color of our skin does not matter. But the relative truth is that we live in an imperfect world. Racism exists. Race itself is a social construct, made up of how others perceive and, therefore, relate to us. Our society is not "colorblind"; the historical experiences of people of color must be taken into account. I may know that I am water, but as long as others see me as a wave, I will be treated as a wave. And, while you may see me as water, as long as others see me as a wave, that is how I am treated—especially if, like the media, they have the power to distribute their concepts of how they see me and others like me.

In the absolute world, how I decide to experience my world is the key to freedom; in the relative world, my perception can impact the immediate moment only so much. I may know that the person who called me a "Jap" and tells me to "Go back where you belong!" as she beats me is only saying such things out of ignorance, fear, and personal pain, but this knowledge doesn't change my need for stitches in the gash on my head. Nor does it change the social structure that allows such acts of hatred to occur. I may think I am an "American," but if most people perceive me as a "foreigner"—as reported in a recent study on Asian Pacific American race relations—then I will be treated with less rights if not outright hatred.

Racism and other oppressions are based on relative truths. Like most people, I want to live in a world of absolute truth, but the world is filled with relative truths. For me, a major gift of Buddhism is the ability to sit with complexities; to see, acknowledge, and be able to contain both truths. So, even if brown rice is "better" for me, I prefer white rice. I have tried brown rice. In my everyday, relative world, the taste of white rice is sweet and feeds me on a deeper level than nutritionally. And, while white rice may taste especially divine to us Vietnamese or Asian Pacific Americans, finding Sanghas in the United States that serve white rice is hard.

In his teachings on the Four Noble Truths, Thich Nhat Hanh says that we must learn to "embrace" our suffering. An important part of my practice is to fully experience my suffering; to fully accept the impact of relative truths on my life. In an oppressive system, creating conditions in which the disenfranchised question their experience is half of the objective—"Did he really mean to touch my breast on that crowded bus? Maybe she just didn't see me here in front of the line? When she said to bring a guest to the party, does that include my (same sex) partner? Am I overreacting or being too sensitive?" In an oppressive system, self-validation is an act of conscious, mindful concentration, and to accept that one's experience has merit is a revolutionary act.

In the West, we try to alleviate pain immediately. Have a headache? Feel depressed? Take a pill. Then, you can go on with the "important" things in life. Similarly, in Buddhist practice, we may rush to master the Third and Fourth Truths before fully accepting the full implication of the First Truth. A deeper observation of the First Truth needs to be emphasized in practice. As a product of this society, I too run for relief from my pain. Often I run to absolute truth, to the belief that if only we all operated from an absolute truth viewpoint, then things would be different. I try to push away the pains of relative reality.

My practice challenge is to understand that in every ocean, there are waves, and to see that while those waves may take me to the other shore, the trip will not always be smooth. Undertows and tsunami are also part of the nature of oceans. My challenge is to not wish that I were somewhere else, to not pretend that these forces are not happening, or to rush to figure how they could or should be different. My challenge is, first, to fully be with what has arisen. To be with the ocean as she is: as water that contains waves.

Lien Shutt practices with the Buddhists of Color Sangha in the San Francisco Bay area.

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Poem: Smiling with My Pain

I feel the pain. It hurts. It hurts very much. I want to smash something, someone, anything. It hurts. It hurts very much. Rage and anger boil within me. It hurts. It hurts very much. I feel inadequate, useless, pathetic; After all it's only pain. But it hurts. It hurts very much.

I stop.

I breathe. I breathe in the stale rank air which surrounds me. I begin to calm, to slow down. I begin to know that I am breathing. As I breathe in, I know I am breathing in. I greet the air. As I greet the air, It tastes sweet and fresh. It tells me of newly mown meadows and mountain valleys. I continue to breathe; Each breath being As if it were the first new beautiful breath of my life.

I hurt. I hurt very much. But I begin to feel safe. I begin to smile. My fixed, clamped, teeth part, Just a little. The tip of my tongue gently brushes my awakening mouth.

My numbed, compressed lips open. They move and begin the forming of a very small, fragile smile. My hard, staring eyes begin to soften. They crease around their edges. They open. I begin to see. I hurt. I hurt very much. But now I know everything will be all right.

As my smile continues to find its way, And my breath brings peace and calm, So my shoulders drop. My tense, aching muscles ease. As my smile mingles, merges and lovingly takes hold of my intolerance, anger and frustration, So love, peace and understanding arrive. I take a long, slow, beautiful breath,

And let my mind dwell on something good and wonderful. I forget that I hurt.

I sense the love, joy, happiness and laughter Of my brothers and sisters in the Dharma, gathered round the long tables; In the warm steamy kitchen, Purposefully wrapping earth cakes in preparation for the New Year's celebrations. I feel the strength of the green banana leaves, As I carefully wrap them round the sticky rice, and tie them with string. I hear the laughter of my brother as I get it all wrong, And he shows me, Again, How to wrap the rice. As I touch this beautiful moment, So I open, And am filled with the wonder and joy of my life. I forget to forget that I hurt.

With the love and understanding that my breath and smile have brought, I acknowledge and greet the deep hurting pain in my body. I smile with my twisted, locked, muscles at the back of my tongue, That hurt so much.

We speak together with love and understanding. I smile with the hard, creased up I knot of muscle at the base of my I spine, That is trying to pull me out of I shape and is the cause of so much pain. I hurt. I hurt very much. But now I know I hurt.

As I open to my pain, To the joy and wonder of my life, So I remember the sound of a teacher's strong, clear voice. I repeat the words that I know so well: "My mind and my body are one." The words travel to the very centre of my being, Like the music of a beautiful bell.

With all my wrong perceptions—I know I am my pain. With all my wrong perceptions—I know I am the cause of my pain. We are one, as I understand, as I do not understand. I know that I hurt. I hurt very much. I But I do not hurt at all. I

Rupert Wilson  Hungerford, England

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Accidental Insights

By Joanne Friday The Five Remembrances I am of the nature to grow old. I am of the nature to have ill health. I am of the nature to die. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. My actions are my only true belongings.

Eight years ago, I was seriously injured in a car accident. I lost my short-term memory, and I hurt. For two years, I tried to be the person I had been, but my brain and my body did not work the way they had. I was attached to my idea of who I was, and to the incorrect view that the way I was before the accident was the best I could be. I was attached to my view of how I was supposed to function. I experienced a lot of pain and suffering because of fear, lack of acceptance of impermanence, and attachment to wrong views. I developed a stress disorder, and my immunity dropped to almost nothing. I am of the nature to have ill health.

I had to give up a job I was good at, and as a result, faced financial problems. This created more fear. To add insult to injury, my insurance company refused to pay my medical bills, and instead, hired an attorney to avoid paying. The lawyer dealt with insurance fraud and  believed everyone was trying to defraud insurance companies. To see him interpret everything through that belief was a deep teaching for me on how our beliefs color our perceptions. I could see how much pain and suffering he was causing—to himself, as well as to me. He was paid by the hour, and dragged the process out as long as possible. Eight years later, with a settlement just big enough to pay the lawyers, the legal wrangling is over. It was of no financial value to me—merely an exercise and an opportunity to practice. Everything that is dear to me is of the nature to change.

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I am still in constant pain, so I have lots of opportunities to be angry, frustrated, sad, doubting, and fearful. Initially, I was almost immobilized by fear. Fortunately, about a year into this process, I went to my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. The practice of mindfulness has helped me look honestly at my feelings, and with time, transform them. It has helped me be aware of my reactions and my habit energy. I have learned to take good care of my feelings, and to look at the part of me that needs love and compassion, but reacts with fear or anger. Frequently, an old hurt makes me vulnerable, so the practice has taken me on a journey of healing the past in the present moment.

Mindfulness has helped me look at setbacks as opportunities to learn, instead of as negative events. It has helped me see how much pain and suffering is caused by attachment to my views of "the way things should be." I spend more time being aware that I don't know. I am still trying to develop loving kindness for myself when I am not able to perform at my previous level. I have learned about the small deaths that come with every loss. I am of the nature to die.

With the help of the practice throughout this difficult period, I have been able to come into the present moment and experience pure joy, even when I am in pain. This is a true gift. Last year, I received the transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and joined the Order of Interbeing. I was given the Dharma name True Gift of Joy. Because of the miracle of mindfulness, I am of the nature to experience true joy.

Joanne Friday, True Gift of Joy, practices with the the Clear Heart Sangha in Rhode Island.

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The Practice of Collective Wisdom

In a world dominated by individualism and competition, it is a real challenge to live as a spiritual community. "Please use the Sangha eye to understand the nature of suffering in our times," urged Thich Nhat Hanh during the 21-day retreat in Plum Village last June. The metaphor used by Thay was to practice like bees in a beehive or ants in an anthill, like a true organism. In our case, as humans, "a mindful organism, which is even better." Realizing that, opinions and ideas are among the greatest obstacles to our practice together. To be a real Sangha—a "living being" that communicates awakening (Buddha) and compassionate love (Dharma)—it is crucial to learn to harmonize different views. "Everybody," Thay said, "wants to do what he or she likes best. To take care as a Sangha, of the different opinions, restoring communication and practicing permanent sharing, is what we have to do." Not an easy task, especially when living in big cities in the West.

Fortunately, the retreat was a wonderful chance to meet friends in the Dharma, and enrich the understanding of these teachings. Among the many, I met Dennis Bohn, one of the more involved members of the New York Metro Community of Mindfulness. I still remember very well an article written by Dennis in The Mindfulness Bell about how to practice consensus in the delicate process of decision-making. ["Deciding How to Decide," Issue #20] When the article appeared, our Milan Sangha was going through a very difficult moment of its quite young history. The problem was deciding how to decide. We shared about the article, and wanted it translated and published in the Italian Sangha newsletter. The deep inspiration and the support we received from that experience was part of our growth, even though conditions in our environment were not the same as the New York Sangha Dennis described. Three years later, at Plum Village, Dennis generously shared with me the latter part of his Sangha's story.

Q. Do you think that, in New York, you developed already as a group, the capacity to express togetherness and live as a mindful organism, at least as related to decisions?

A. I don't know if we have evolved to that point yet. I think that decision making by consensus was just the right process for our group. What I might stress today is that we cultivated the value of sitting there and working over a decision. It reminds me the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Everyone has a little bit of a different viewpoint, but if you can sit a little longer, a more accurate picture of the elephant emerges.

Q. In Milan, the core members of the Order of Interbeing wondered if it was more helpful to include everyone in the process of decision-making rather than invite to the meetings only the more committed friends. Now, Thay has explained very clearly that also lay Sanghas can apply the Sanghakarman procedure, a mix of democracy and seniorship. What is your experience?

A. We started thinking about how to make decisions as a community, because at the first meetings to formally organize the New York metropolitan community, no one agreed on anything. It took a year to get a definite proposal for a decision making process, inspired by the method used by the Quakers. We wanted to be as inclusive as possible. In fact, anybody in our community has the right to attend a meeting and speak out. But for an individual to block consensus and prevent the community from moving forward on an issue, we ask a commitment. The person must have practiced with the Sangha for a year and have attended two of the previous four meetings of the core community. This way, they are more likely to fully understand the background of the matter being considered by the Sangha. Our opinion is that to make a decision, like how to coordinate a day of mindfulness or how to use donations, is very important, but the process the Sangha uses to come to it is far more important.

Q. Patience is the key, I guess.

A. Sure. The meetings are not been always completely wonderful, but now the qualities of tolerance, patience, and skillful speech are part of the culture of our community. We have learned not to be in the hurry to get a decision right in that meeting. Furthermore, we take as much time as we need, so as not to push things before their time has come and allow the whole group to cope with different ideas.

Q. Might we call it the embodiment of the Sangha eye?

A. I only mean that in my experience of this consensus model, the collective vision, the Sangha eye, is much clearer and purer than in any single individual. Ultimately, I have seen the collective wisdom of the group grow and become much stronger. To me, this is a real wonder.

Alberto Annicchiarico, True Gathering of Understanding, is a journalist for a daily newspaper, and practices with Dharma Door Sangha in Milan, Italy.

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The Music Experience

By Joseph Emet One of the treasures of our tradition is our collection of songs for the practice of mindfulness. These songs are in the language of the here and the now. A medieval Tibetan chant takes me away from the here and the now to another time and another place. Our songs, on the other hand, encourage me to enjoy this place, this Western world, at this unique time.

As a layperson, my experience may differ from the experience of our monastic sisters and brothers. For me, Gregorian-like chants wear the plain long gown of the monk, while these songs wear the flowery dresses and shirts of lay life. That is here and now for me.

So many of the jazz, blues, or popular songs we hear on the radio are songs of seduction. Not only the words, but the voice and manners of the singer concentrate on one thing: the man-woman relationship, mostly perpetuating popular illusions and delusions about our feelings. Recently, I attended a Pow-wow at the Kahnawake Reservation near Montreal. The chants and the clothing of the singers and dancers completely bypassed this seduction thing. Instead of being syrupy sweet, the earthy voices reflected the forces and strength of nature. My friends remarked that this music sounded like it came from a different planet.

I would have to agree. This music did come from a different planet: planet Earth! Most of today's music comes from planet Media instead. We must listen more to the Earth than we do now, and less to the media. Then, we will be more true to ourselves in our singing.

Recently I shared some of our mindfulness songs with a professional singer who has made several classical CDs. When she sang them, the songs sounded like an aria from an opera. I gently hinted that this was not the right style for these songs. She responded that she could also sing in the popular style, and proceeded to sound like a Broadway musical. I objected again, and she dazzled me with her ability to sing like a true jazz singer, and then, a rock star from the top of the charts! But the one thing this trained virtuoso could not do was to be herself and sing naturally. "Simple" can be so difficult sometimes.

We are groping toward natural things. We shop at the natural foods store, we wear natural fibers, and we try natural childbirth. With our practice songs, we must sing with the voice of our natural self. Let us always listen to our own voices like we listen to the sound of the bell.

Joseph Emet, Abode of Peaceful Concentration, is the editor of A Basket of Plums: Songs for the Practice of Mindfulness.

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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.

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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 Man with the Golden Horse

From a Vietnamese Song There once was a young knight who rode a golden horse in many directions, looking for his lover. Early each morning, he mounted his horse and rode until sunset. He crossed rivers, forests, and mountains in his search. His mind was so anxious for the seeking, full of dreams about the date he met his lover. His clothes became tatters; the golden coat of his horse turned dingy and dull, but he continued to ride. Each day, the poor man rode until his body was exhausted. He rode through jungles and across rivers. But still, he could not find what he was looking for.

One day the knight came to a high mountain—so high that he could not see the top. A large river flowed at the foot of the mountain, blocking his way. It flowed slowly, peacefully, and beautifully. The knight sat down on a big rock beside the river. He looked at the water reflecting the blue sky, the white clouds, the rocks, and green trees. For the first time, he really saw the beauty of nature, and everything seemed new.

The young knight's desperate longing to search for his lover vanished. He looked at his golden horse. The horse shook itself, and transformed into the lover he had sought for so long. Suddenly, the young man realized that riding on reality, he was looking for reality, but only when he stopped seeking, could he truly encounter reality.

You are what you're looking for. —Thich Nhat Hanh

This story is shared by Dieu Lien, True Long Lasting Joy, who practices with the Mindfulness Practice Community in Toronto.

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Taking the Fifth

By Lennis Lyon Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generation. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

At the 1997 Santa Barbara Retreat, I took the first four Mindfulness Trainings. I was not yet ready to give up the glass of wine I enjoyed at occasional dinner parties, and declined the Fifth Training. Then, at the 1999 Santa Barbara Retreat, I reflected often on the joys and sufferings of my only child, my 25-year-old son, Tatian. I recognized that his sufferings included how uncomfortable he felt with me when I drank alcohol. I could see that what I thought were witty, entertaining comments, flowing easily after my glass of wine, were really made without regard for their effect on others. Tatian has chosen not to drink alcohol in high school, college, and as an adult. During the retreat, I wrote this letter:

My Dear Son,

I love you very much. I want to give you a gift for choosing not to drink alcohol, and to support you in this decision. I have decided to stop drinking alcohol and to take a vow with Thich Nhat Hanh to support me. You no longer need to worry about being embarrassed by my behavior from drinking wine. It has been ten months since I took the Fifth Mindfulness Training. When I am tempted to have a sip of wine, I see my son's beautiful face, and decline.

Lennis Lyon practices with the Pot Luck Sangha in Oakland, California.

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Reconsidering

By Jeanine C. Cogan Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determiend not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.

My understanding of the first Mindfulness Training was very literal until recently. It meant do not kill. Period. On one retreat, however, I heard this wonderful man from Australia talk about this training in a new way. "In addition to 'do not kill,'" he said, "this precept means to interact with others in such a way that you do not kill the spirit, inspiration, joy, or confidence in another person. The way you speak to and treat another person can instill joy and happiness, or it can instill fear and insecurity. The latter is a form of killing, because something in that person gets shut down—and contributes to what we might call the 'living dead.'" I was really struck by that interpretation of the first training.

Now, I can no longer check this precept off my list in a confident, "Yup, I got that one down" manner. My practice of this precept has deepened greatly.

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Jeanine C. Cogan is a Consultant for Research, Policy & Action in Washington, D.C.

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Discourse on the Absolute Truth

Paramtthaka Sutta Sutta Nipata IV.5

1. He who still abides by a dogmatic view, considering it as the highest in the world, thinking, 'This is the most excellent," and disparaging other views as inferior, is still considered not to be free from disputes.

2. When seeing, hearing, or sensing something and considering it as the only thing that can bring comfort and advantage to self, one is always inclined to get caught in it and rule out everything else as inferior.

3. Caught in one's view and considering all other views as inferior, this attitude is considered by the wise as bondage, as the absence of freedom. A good practitioner never hastily believes in what is seen, heard, and sensed, including rules and rites.

4. A good practitioner has no need to set up a new theory for the world, using the knowledge he has picked up or the rules and rites he is practicing. He does not consider himself as ''superior," "inferior," or "equal" to anyone.

5. A good practitioner abandons the notion of self and the tendency to cling to views. He is free and does not depend on anything, including knowledge. He does not take sides amidst controversies and does not hold onto any view or dogma.

6. He does not seek for anything or cling to anything, either for this extreme (being) or that extreme (nonbeing), either in this life or in the next life. He has abandoned all views and no longer has the need to seek comfort or refuge in any theory or ideology.

7. To the wise person, there are no longer any views concerning what is seen, heard, or sensed. How could one judge or have an opinion concerning such a pure being who has let go of all views?

8. A wise person no longer feels the need of setting up dogmas or choosing an ideology. All dogmas and ideologies have been abandoned by such a person. A real noble one is never caught in rules or rites. He or she is advancing steadfastly to the shore of liberation and will never return to the realm of bondage.

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Practicing with Kyrre

By Svein Myreng and Eevi Beck We sat down to meditate for the first time in weeks, and it felt wonderful. Then we heard small, unhappy noises from our baby boy, Kyrre, crawling on the floor next to us. Seeing Mom and Dad sitting still and withdrawn, was quite scary. Practicing mindfulness with a child is different from what we had expected, and different from all ideas we might have had of practice. It is difficult to find time for yourself, and we often have no time for sitting meditation, or are too tired from waking up repeatedly at night. Yet, we need the support of formal sitting more than ever, and are learning to create time for it.

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Kyrre draws us straight into the present moment, time and again. He lives fully in the present, and when he needs us, there is no saying, "I'll just finish reading this article first." We have to let go of what we are doing and be there for him. Of course, sometimes we have to have him wait, such as when we're holding a hot pot, or putting soiled nappies in the wash. On such occasions, Kyrre is usually patient with us, if we don't overdo it. So we try hard to be there without delay if we can, so when we really need to, we can ask him to wait.

The wonderful thing is that he's there for us too, fully present. This has had impacts I (Eevi) could not have imagined. One day I couldn't work out why he didn't settle in at the breast. He was in a good position, and I wanted him to get on with it so I could turn to something else afterwards. Suddenly I saw that his little frowning face was my face. I knew I was sitting still, but when I felt my brow, it was all frowned up. And sure enough, as soon as I returned to my body, relaxed my face and other tensions, his unease evaporated and he sucked happily away. I learned then to check my own agitation whenever he seemed inexplicably restless!

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Letting go is, of course, one of the main parts of the practice. Holding on—to desires, fixed ways of doing things, opinions, and our self-image—keeps us unfree. Kyrre helps us let go by demanding our presence, by needing us—and by changing so fast. By the time we both felt confident changing his nappies on a changing table, he soon started moving about so much that we were afraid he'd fall down. In the end he did, and we moved nappy changing onto the floor, and later, to our laps. When Kyrre started crawling, we moved all dangerous objects out of his reach on the floor. Then he started standing, and we had to move the same objects out of his new and higher reach. One day, he could open drawers for the first time. These changes, commonplace for all parents, demand pretty constant mindfulness just to avoid accidents.

mb27-Practicing A more demanding exercise in letting go comes from seeing the stress caused to Kyrre and to us by filling up our days and weeks with too much programme. Time and again we have to make a conscious effort to protect periods of doing nothing.

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The tremendous love that appeared in us when Kyrre was born, is something I (Svein) would never have been able to imagine. The main part of our practice is, in a way, to let this love be expressed. So the challenge isn't so much staying mindful. For this, we now have our own little "Thay" to teach us each moment. The challenge is to find a balance between listening to the toddler's needs and wishes, and retaining a sense of rhythm to the day. This is not always easy.

One thing we have succeeded in, is to make a small ceremony before each meal. We light a candle, and sing a short verse of grace before we start eating. It's wonderful to see Kyrre's face light up in joy when he sees us light the candle or hears the song. Our simple ceremony gives him a sense of security and familiarity. We also use it away from home. On trips, we sing grace quietly before feeding him. Once, Kyrre got upset, when we joined another child in singing a different song: We had not been mindful that we had already lit the candle and were in the middle of his ceremony!

Stopping and looking at a tree is a healing practice during a busy day. Tonight, on a light Norwegian summer evening, we introduced Kyrre more closely to some trees near our block of flats. He was completely absorbed, touching a fir tree and then a birch, looking at an ant, ... ? He was radiant with a deep, quiet joy.

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One aspect of our practice is to impart values and practices that are good for him and the world. We use cloth diapers, better for his skin as well as the environment. They take a bit more work, but folding nappies is an excellent meditation practice. The calm rhythm of repeated movements makes a break from rushing between chores. By choosing the convenient solution, disposable nappies, dishwasher, etc., many of us deprive ourselves of calming and centering work. With a baby, this kind of work is extra important. We have chosen not to have a TV set—a decision we are very happy with. We have read enough about the impact of television on the human body and mind to feel that it is a pretty dangerous device. (We think and hope our computer is less so!) Visiting friends or relatives who have a TV, we see Kyrre's attention getting sucked into the TV screen. It's virtually impossible to make him look away from it. We are aware that it may be more difficult to always keep him away from TV, but we hope the good seeds we plant now will have their influence.

We are aware that we are privileged—without money worries (because we try to live simply) and living in Norway, where people work less and get better social support than in many other countries. For instance, we had a one-year parental leave of absence from work, with 80 percent pay, dividing the free time between us.

Another privilege that means a lot to us is having Sangha meetings at our home every Thursday. Eevi and Svein take turns meditating with the others and being with Kyrre, and for the conversation after sitting, Kyrre joins the group. Though the Dharma discussion becomes less concentrated, this is a very joyful time for all, and we feel like Kyrre has an extra family

All the letting go brings lots of old knots to the surface, and challenges our habit energy. To take care of the irritation and selfishness that appear when we are tired from waking up several times a night for several nights running, or when Kyrre poops five minutes after we last changed his nappy and we need to make it for the subway—those are the great challenges of practice. The old "mindfulness virtues" are important: to recognise and acknowledge what you feel and accept it, even when it's irrational anger against your beloved child. Then, it's possible to breathe a few times so the anger can disappear, or ask your spouse for help.

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Admitting our weaknesses—without self-judgment— may be most important of all. So many times I (Eevi) feel I am failing—as parent, as practitioner, and as an example for Kyrre. My practice from before he was born taught me the invaluable lesson that such feelings are never the whole picture. Just try again. And this life-transforming lesson is one I have been able to keep practicing. The practice helps us not lose faith when we fail to live up to our ideals. "A Zen master's life is one continuous mistake," said Dogen. A parent's life is, too!

And Kyrre is a perfect mirror. We project onto him reactions that can only stem from ourselves. As he can't talk yet, our communication, though rich, is limited to the concrete and to general moods. We may catch ourselves thinking he's impatient or irritated with us, only to see that it's our own mind, our fears we see. This year has opened our eyes to how habitually we project onto others. When our fear and insecurity doesn't intrude, we see him more clearly as he is.

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Living with and through these challenges, we find it's crucial to keep communicating. We do the Beginning Anew ceremony when possible, and try to take time for each other. It is difficult at times, but very important. During this period of too little sitting and too little sleep, some of Thay's practices get a whole new meaning—the Four Mantras, the teachings on Right Speech, and the Five Awarenesses for married people. More than ever before, we feel part of a family lineage, grateful to the previous generations and committed to give Kyrre as much love and joy as possible. This is such a joyful time, taking care of our precious little son and of each other.

Now, Kyrre is even comfortable with us sitting a little in meditation—if we remember to smile!

Eevi Beck, True Compassionate Practice, and her husband, Dharma teacher Svein Myreng, True Door, live in Oslo, Norway. Their son, Kyrre, was born in May 1999. Svein's book, Plum Poems, was published by Parallax Press in 1999. Svein is at home with Kyree, while writing a book on meditation. Eevi works as a computer scientist.

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Cultivating Family Practice in the Sangha

By Michele Tedesco Two years ago, I presented the community at Plum Village a very special vase of flowers. It took me about fifteen minutes to arrange in front of the community. The whole community was breathing and smiling while I arranged these flowers. But that pot of flowers was quite different from any other pot of flowers I have arranged, because that evening, the flowers that I arranged were children.... Each child is a flower. Adults should remember that children are flowers to be taken care of in order for joy and happiness to last. —Thich Nhat Hanh

Every time adults practice together, we have an opportunity to present the Sangha with just such a pot of flowers. We may not be as skillful at flower arranging, because the practice is new to us. We may be afraid to handle the blossoms for fear they are too delicate or the bright colors may offend some community members. We are afraid the vase may tip and fall loudly, causing some to lose their mindfulness momentarily. We are afraid of discord in the Sangha. As with any new skill, we must overcome fear of failure to make the first attempts. Be mindful, be diligent, and we will learn to be skillful flower arrangers.

My husband and I are fortunate that our Sangha supports our learning to arrange our beautiful flowers—Christopher (15), Giovanni (7), and Gabriela (5)—in front of them on a regular basis. Indeed, over the past two years, the Sangha has encouraged us. Many have seized the opportunity to practice with our children. Because of this, our family, our practice, and our Sangha have reaped many rewards. As a family we are able to practice together and feel the support and love of our community. Our Sangha benefits by having the vibrancy of youth to inspire us, and provide other ways to practice.

Even within my beautiful Sangha, however, some parents do not include their children in our community practice. There is nothing unique that makes our children more accessible to the practice. My children are valued immensely, but they are the only children who attend functions regularly. I know this must be true of other Sanghas as well. I have spent much time and energy trying to figure out why, so that I would be able to help people understand that children and Sangha practice can go together—even if it is a little messy sometimes. So this past spring, I decided that instead of bringing the children to the Sangha, I would bring the Sangha to the children! In May, we had our first Kid's Mini Day of Mindfulness.

The day was a great success. Not because everything happened perfectly—of course, it didn't—but because it simply happened). Ten children, from one to fifteen-years-old, attended with at least one parent. Most wonderful of all, five members of our Sangha who do not have children participated, by taking on activities through the day or by simply leading around a restless one-year-old—a beautiful contribution of support for the mother. Here is our schedule:

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During orientation I explained the symbolism of the Buddha statue on our small altar. Some parents and children knew very little about Buddhism; some practice another religion as their spiritual foundation. To alleviate any discomfort they might feel, we made it very clear that the statue was not the Buddha, but a symbol of his wisdom and enlightenment. I explained that we show respect to these qualities, and to this potential within ourselves when we bow. Also, we oriented the children to the bell and used it as a gathering sound.

The mindful games, led by one of our "less young" Sangha members, consisted of carrying beans in a small spoon from one pot to another. If they spilled, you had to start over. In another game, the children held the edges of a parachute and tried to keep balls rolling on it. In both games, the children discovered that the slower they went and the more they concentrated, the more successful they were. In the Dharma Talk, we talked about their experiences in the games, as applied to the idea of mindfulness. Cultivating mindfulness was our theme for the day and the games gave the children direct experience of its benefits. We also discussed how to be mindful with parents, siblings, and friends. Even the youngest children understood these experiences of mindfulness.

During story time, another less young Sangha member read some of the Jataka tales. Then, one of the mothers taught the song, "Breathing In, Breathing Out." The children also drew pictures of some of the concepts in the song: mountains, flowers, water, space. While the children were doing this, I threw in a parent discussion group, almost as an afterthought. The parents' discussion turned out to be a wonderful, nurturing experience. We asked questions and shared experiences. We opened by reading and discussing a longer version of the quote at the beginning of this article. Most importantly, I wanted to give the parents some simple, useful, practice tools. First, I encouraged the parents and children to use the bell when emotions are high, to bring the family back to its breath. Another tool I find very effective is using the word "mindful" with children, for example, "Susie, was it mindful to yell at your brother?" Finally, I gave the parents copies of The Five Contemplations, a sort of Buddhist meal prayer. Reciting the contemplations, announced by a bell, before a meal can add meaning and closeness to this daily family activity.

During lunch, we introduced the practice of the contemplations. The bell was invited. The contemplations were recited. Then, there was another bell and we took a few breaths before we ate. To deepen the practice of mindful eating, I asked the children to take one bite of their food and chew it ten times, counting their chews. During the meal we invited the bell a few more times to remind them to count their chews.

Meditation was presented to the parents and children as simply quieting your body and mind. We practiced bell meditation. Everyone closed their eyes and listened to the beautiful sound of the bell. When they couldn't hear the sound any longer, they raised their hands. All the children enjoyed a turn at inviting the bell, especially the one-year-old who invited it several times. At first, I thought it was a mistake to put meditation after free play when energies are at their peak. It did take a few minutes to settle down, but this was good training for the children. After all, mindfulness is most useful when things get crazy.

The last activity was art. Toni Carlucci, an art teacher whom we are fortunate to have as a Sangha member, is discovering wonderful ways to cultivate mindfulness through art. First, she showed the children some seeds and seedlings. Then they went around the property where we were, and looked at all the plants and flowers. Toni spoke to the children about how, through looking deeply and mindfully, they could see that the earth, rain, and sun are in the plants. Then, they made a three-paneled drawing with the seeds in the ground, a seedling, and a plant in full flower with the earth, sun and rain in each panel.

In the closing circle, we came together one last time. We looked at the art projects, and the children sang their new song. Each child was encouraged to say something. The point was to hear everyone's voice even if the only thing they had to say was, "I don't have anything to say."

We had a full day. Yet everyone—parents, children, and other Sangha members—came away with a deepened sense of mindfulness for themselves and their families. In other words, children's and family practice works!

I encourage every Sangha with families and children to plan some special time like this, even if you only have one or two children. Don't worry. If you start this practice, they will come. It is easier than you think. You may be surprised by the talents and energy your Sangha members bring to this project. Don't expect the kids to practice like adults. This is a different kind of day. Instead of Noble Silence, encourage the practice of Noble Not-So-Loud. Be prepared to abandon a plan if it is not working with your group. Be flexible. If four hours are more than you can handle, try two hours. Have parents and children practice together as much as possible through the day, especially during the Dharma Talk, the meal, and meditation. It is important that parents and children are on the same page in the practice, so it continues at home.

Deepening family practice in your Sangha will add a new and vital energy to the Sangha as a whole. As your spiritual community broadens itself in this way, its strength will grow, making a deeper well from which all members can drink.

Michele Tedesco and her family practice with The Breathing Heart Sangha, in Atlanta and Athens, Georgia. She is interested in creating materials and rough guidelines for developing family practice. If you would like to help, please write Michele at 207 St. Martins Lane, Mableton, GA 30126, USA; e-mail: wholeideas@mindspring.com

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The Prodigal Son

By Mark LeMay I came late to parenting. I was 40 when Joe was born and 43 when Sammy arrived. They are now six and three years old, and I am still amazed at how they changed my life. I am especially struck by the sheer challenge of parenting. When Joe was an infant, his nighttime nickname was Buddha: he was always awake. Now it seems we have two live-in Zen masters. They are ingenious at disrupting the first sign of complacency in us.

During our six years as parents, we have moved closer to Buddhism and the practice of mindfulness. We strive to bring mindfulness to our family life and were very pleased to discover Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, Everyday Blessings. We are committed to parenting as spiritual practice, and look for ways to gently introduce our children to the path. For example, they take turns as bellmaster before meals, and we recite a mealtime gatha together. We also encourage them to sound the bell when things get a little out of control. We all take three breaths and, with or without giggling from the boys, try to remember our commitment to family harmony.

We feel it is also important that our children know something of Christianity, the root tradition of both their parents. We have attended a fairly liberal Episcopal church where the boys went to Bible school. For a year or so, Joe thought of Jesus and Buddha as ancient superheroes, like Superman and Batman. This church, with its friendly priests and warm congregation, helped heal many of my old Catholic School wounds. In particular, I remember a visit from a retired bishop who talked about the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32). He focused on the story as a model of God's love for all his children, and of God's willingness to accept us back into the church, even when we have fallen away.

The Prodigal Son, like many Bible stories, has always been difficult for me to grasp, and even harder to live. But since I was studying and practicing mindfulness when the bishop came, I started to see the parable in a different light. It became particularly useful to see each of the three characters as parts of myself.

In the parable, the prodigal son convinced his father to divide his estate and give him his inheritance. He then journeyed "into a far country, and wasted his substance with riotous living." After he squandered his inheritance, a famine arose, "and he began to be in want." He went to work for a farmer, feeding his swine and eating the husks that the swine left. He suddenly realized that his father's hired hands lived better than he did. He decided to go home and ask his father to "make me as one of thy hired servants." But when he returned, the prodigal son was overcome with guilt, and said to his father, "I am no more worthy to be called thy son."

In relation to my practice, I am the prodigal son when I live in forgetfulness and self-centeredness. When I hurry my children through our morning routine or allow irritation to creep into my voice because I am attached to my agenda, I waste the precious gift of life in the present moment. When I come back to my breath, I seek the peace of mindfulness, but often I experience the guilt of the prodigal son for having strayed and causing others to suffer.

When the prodigal son returned, the father told the servants to bring his best robe for the son and to  kill the fatted calf: "For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." The father accepts his son with loving-kindness and rejoices at his return. He greets the prodigal son warmly and rejoices at his return. The father's response is a model for how I can treat myself when I stray from the path of mindfulness.

The third character, the elder son, remained faithful to his father while his younger brother squandered his inheritance. Upon hearing the celebration for his brother, he "was angry and would not go in. His father came out, and entreated him: 'Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.'" The story does not explore the elder son's feelings, aside from his anger. I can easily imagine him also feeling resentful, wounded, and suspicious. These feelings are familiar, for I have held them toward others and towards myself. When I wake up to the suffering caused when I stray from mindfulness, I feel critical and suspicious of myself. When I have strayed from my goal of mindful parenting, I sometimes feel the sting of shame as I take a deep breath and re-attune to my children. I feel both the guilt of the prodigal son, and the angry suspicion of the elder brother toward myself.

Each time I catch myself living in forgetfulness  and feel the prodigal son and his brother in my heart, I try to remember the father. The father does not reject his younger son for having strayed, but rejoices  at his return. The father also does not rebuke the elder son for his anger and resentment, but invites him to join the celebration. I try not to cling to or repress my shame and anger. I notice these feelings and return to my breath. My feelings cannot be removed with aggression. I recognize them as part of the fold, and each time I return to the path, I say to myself (paraphrasing Thay),"I have arrived; welcome home."

Mark LeMay lives in Jefferson City, Tennessee, practices with the Thirty Good Leaves Sangha, and teaches parenting at a community mental health center, where he and his wife are psychologists.

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I Embrace the Sky

By Erica Shane Hamilton Sometimes, I don't know how I managed to survive those few months in the north of France. At times, I thought death might be better. Every morning around five, I woke up to intense pain in my side. I had to go to the bathroom, where I experienced more pain with the passing of digested food through my ulcerated intestines. I would try and focus on the power of my body to heal as I felt the pain. But inevitably, I would cry as I saw that I was losing more and more blood. I would try and go back to sleep, but often I woke to go to the bathroom six times in one morning.

It was so difficult to eat or enjoy my food during that time. Food symbolized pain and the less I ate, the less pain I would feel. I started to feel like a ghost of my former self. Three years ago, I could bench-press 90 pounds, climb rocks, and run five miles a day. During each episode of ulcerative colitis, I lost a little more weight, and in France, I found myself weighing less than 48 kilograms, 106 pounds, atrophied and weak, with barely enough energy to get out of bed. A French doctor prescribed steroids to avoid hospitalizing me. They were a mixed blessing. They kept me from wasting away, but had awful side effects, causing insomnia and exacerbating my emotions to the point that I felt manic-depressive. The day I left for Plum Village, I started to feel better. The e-mails I wrote during the past 5 months chronicle my recovery in France and how mindfulness helped me maintain my health and enjoy my life. Here is a sampling.

24 March 2000

I would love to eat vegetables and legumes right now, but I can only crave them. Sometimes I cry when I see lots of veggies at the store that I can't eat; especially today because I found a great health food store that had beautiful, fresh, organic veggies. It was so nice tonight just to be able to cut them and cook them up, and savor their taste in the broth. So, in my honor, and in honor of the long-awaited spring we are welcoming, please go out some time this week and savor some veggies and fruits. You know, my favorite meal of the day is breakfast because I get to eat a banana. The rest of the day it's plain rice, plain pasta, eggs, soy milk, tofu, fish, a slice of bread (at least that is the best in the world here). I can't even have that much salt because it makes the meds harder on my kidneys. And its been two months like this.... Enjoy your veggies!

28 April 2000

I am doing GREAT as far as my health. Plum Village was the medicine my soul needed! In fact, I will return on May 3 for another few weeks. The healing energy at Plum Village is absolutely wonderful. Immediately, we felt a sense of peace. I remember watching the sunset that night, through the orchard, thinking, how happy this piece of earth is—the birds and animals and trees love this place! Frankly, I was a little scared that I would not be able to hack it—the mindfulness and so much time meditating. But as the days continued, I started to really groove with it.

At first, the reaction of people to the sound of the bell or the clock or the kitchen phone was funny to me because everyone stopped. It was like "freeze frame." But I began to look forward to those bells because they gave me the opportunity to return "home" and to feel a deep sense of relaxation. Even today, in Brussels, when a bell rings, Liza and I stop and breathe. I was heading in this direction already, before Plum Village. But it accelerated my love of life one hundred fold. I have experienced so many beautiful moments in the last three weeks and now feel ready to experience beautiful moments and lots of love—for myself and for others—for the rest of my life!!!

Sure, occasionally, the weather changes, so to speak, and I get a little down or I get stuck in my head. But I gently witness these emotions and try and understand what is underneath, that is the teaching of mindfulness. And I go back into my body and see how it feels with the emotions. It is all part of caring for myself and I have not felt this centered in years, or perhaps ever. I am going back to really practice mindfulness more, so that when I do start work or school once again, I will enjoy my life and take things in stride and pay attention to my body and health. I recommend this sort of retreat for everyone, it is not really religious, even though there are monks and nuns (the most beautiful, joyous, warm people), but it's kind of like a summer camp for learning how to enjoy life.

25 May 2000

I am writing from San Sebastian, Spain! Yes, I know, I lead a rough life these days, at la playa! It is so gorgeous here. I love the combo of mountains and sea! When last I wrote, I was in Brussels, getting ready to go back to Plum Village for a few more weeks. When I returned, I learned that Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) would be staying in our hamlet for the month of May. I was incredibly fortunate to have experienced his teachings firsthand morning, noon, and night as he attended our sitting meditations, walking meditations, and many meals. I would like to share some of my experiences with all of you ... in the short time I have left at this Internet cafe.

One morning, after we sat and did a brief walking meditation, Thay gathered us around family style and spoke softly. "You are a star," he said, raising his eyes on the word star."... and no less than that. When you walk mindfully, you are all stars circulating in harmony. How beautiful you are. You can celebrate life by walking in this way." And I thought to myself, "I am a star— hee, hee."

Another morning, we had a lot of guests from Christian backgrounds and Thay tried to gear his teaching towards them. "The Kingdom of God is now or never. You can touch the Kingdom of God with each step you take." Even though I did not quite jive with the lingo (I probably would use Universe of Love instead of Kingdom of God), it was a turning point of sorts for me, as the rest of the day I reminded myself, "Now or never. I have the opportunity to experience the love in this moment right now, the love all around me and within me."

I think of it kind of like being at a good show, whether performing or in the audience. Say you have to go to the bathroom during the show, but you don't want to get up because you might miss something. Well, that show is your life and going to the bathroom is getting lost in your thoughts. Reminding myself of this has helped me feel so much joy, feel so lucky to be alive, and feel healthy in a simple, single moment.

My birthday was incredible, perhaps the most blissful day of my life!!! I ate veggies and dessert all day to ensure a healthy and sweet year (and to enjoy them). It was also the Buddha's birthday and day of ordination in which twelve sisters and brothers became monks and nuns. The ordination ceremony was amazing and touching; seeing twelve souls so committed was like watching a marriage to the Sangha (community). It was a truly wonderful birthday. Thanks again for all of the prayers, blessings, and birthday cards, they have been a sure part of my healing process.

8 June 2000

I am back in the U.S., how strange indeed. I'm going through a bit of reverse culture shock. But I enjoy being back, especially to better communicate with those of you here. And now, I'm in D.C.—yoooohooooo— staying with my wonderful friend, Cleary, whom I have known a dozen years. But, I don't want this e-mail circuit to end. You are my sounding board and you helped me through a really rough time of my life.

So, let me tell you all about "ze hussukt de munkt." Last week, while I was visiting family, my aunt, a Jew-for-Jesus Baptist, was wearing a T-shirt that said "I LOVE JESUS" real big. My grandfather, an atheist, did not really like her wearing the shirt in the primarily Jewish condo that they live in. He thought it cheapened her religion but she said it was her right to clothe herself as she saw fit (both good points). Well, a few days later, she brought it up again and my Grandfather said, "Ze hussukt de munkt," which means in Yiddish, roughly, that she reminded herself of something that happened in the recent past. It is something we all do, yet sometimes it is tough to come back and be present. Sometimes, I find myself thinking about conversations I had earlier in the day or the day before, replaying them, and wondering if I said the "right" thing (as if there is a right thing). But when I catch myself in "ze hussukt de munkt," I go back to my breath and, if possible, try and find the "smiling, caring, loving energy." (I know that sounds hippie/New Age, but it is what I feel when I am real focused on the present). And then I feel how wonderful that energy is in comparison to whatever silly thought I had. But, if I can't go back fully to that energy with my breath, I know that something in the conversation either provoked an uncomfortable feeling or an uncomfortable question (like, "what if s/he is perceiving something that is true for me too?"). And then I use the Dharma tools.

"J'embrasse ma colere avec beaucoup de tendresse, comme un bebe." During the Francophone retreat at Plum Village, Thay made this statement. It means, "I embrace my anger with lots of tenderness, like a baby." You can substitute your emotional flavor of the day into that sentence. It ain't easy, I know. But the process helps me to be honest with myself and to know more of who I am. So, when I do breathe, and go back to myself, I am going back to a solid force full of love and joy. Like I said, sometimes joy is part of other things. I will leave you with a sparkler poem I wrote at Plum Village.

Yesterday A butterfly waved her wings beside me. Gleaming from her flight she flashed me with orange, reminding me of fire as something cracked deep within. I felt a buzzing with this element. I thought was lost in times of uncertainty and sadness Pop! it went in my belly. A sparkler, like I used to wave on the 4th of July. Pop! and the glitter streamed through my blood with euphoria, giggling. "See, you remember me. I am your sparkle. You light me again with each fully belly laugh, each gaze of wonder at the cosmos, each shimmer of passion for yourself. I am here, always ready to be ignited.

7 July 2000

This week's e-mail is about freedom, something I strive to have and something we just celebrated here in the U.S. It has been a rough week for me as a friend and I drove to Atlanta and back with a Ryder rental truck full of my stuff over the holiday weekend. I don't think I have recovered from the twelve-hour drive back on Tuesday. And it has been very difficult to practice being mindful, even though the Still Water Sangha of Takoma Park helped rejuvenate me for a spell. As they taught at the day of mindfulness in Oakton, Virginia a few weeks ago, it is very difficult to be mindful when you are physically exhausted. And I know that is not healthy....

"Am I taking on too much?" I ask myself. First, moving back to the States, then to D.C., finding an apartment, searching for a job with benefits (so I am covered for my ulcerative colitis—welcome back to the U.S.), trying to heal dynamics within my family, meeting people, dating ... Is taking on too much my habit energy creeping up on me?

I told the Still Water Sangha about how I see the Dharma (teachings of mindfulness) as a sort of mindfulness bell that allows me to stop and decide whether I want to continue my present course of action or change it. And so I look to Thay's teachings as this bell, to remind me that I have a choice, that I am as free as I want to be.

Attachment to things around us and within our consciousness. "It is important to look deeply to get the freedom you deserve. We cling to our suffering, we are afraid of losing our suffering." said Thich Nhat Hanh. And so I ask myself, what suffering am I holding on to? What wrong perceptions do I have that are keeping me from being free?

Do I perceive myself as more alone, or needing to be more alone, or disconnected from what I know? Or falling out of the practice? It is actually the Sangha, being connected to others practicing mindfulness, that helps me be free, including all of you, and your support.

At Plum Village, I often felt really full. I was so joyous and happy so much of the time and I told one of the nuns about this once and I said, "But I'm supposed to be empty, right?" And I can still hear the echoes of her voice as she said, "When I completely hear the birds singing and smell the scent of the flowers and feel the wind and melt into it, that is when I truly feel empty."

As I was walking to the subway this morning, I saw the rays of the sun beaming through the clouds and I felt empty of the suffering and free again as I sank into the feeling of myself connecting to everything around me.

And so I end my story by acknowledging the wonderful gift of practicing mindfulness. Every day I embrace the sky and everything it contains— the clouds, the rain, the sun, and the oxygen I take into my lungs with each breath. And everyday I wake up and smile, thankful for everything that I am able to experience in each day. The biggest changes for me since those first few months in France are that I am healthy now and I have fallen in love ... with my life.

Erica Shane Hamilton works as a Conservation Associate for the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps. She practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community, the Still Water Sangha of Takoma Park, Maryland, and the Virginia Mindfulness Center in Fairfax, Virginia.

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Bay Area Young Adult Sangha

By Michael Trigilio In 1997,1 was ordained in the Tiep Hien Order. I was twenty-two and feeling so happy and supported ... but also a little bit isolated. I noticed that nearly every layperson around me was my parents' or grandparents' age. I had so many wonderful opportunities to share and learn from my dear friends of previous generations. But I also experienced a feeling of marginality—perhaps similar to the discomfort often expressed by people of color, women, gays and lesbians, or disabled people when they find themselves in the minority of a group practice setting.

In the Fall of 1999, a friend and I began working to develop a Sangha for young adults in the San Francisco Bay Area. And in January 2000, six practitioners in their 20s met at the Community of Mindful Living for the first time. We practiced sitting and walking meditation, chanted the Refuge Chant, and had Dharma Discussion. Since then, our Young Adult Sangha has grown to more than twenty people, ranging in age from 18 to early 30s. We meet three times a month to practice together and discuss our practice of mindfulness and the Mindfulness Trainings as we grapple with issues specific to young people.

The Bay Area Young Adult Sangha offers a safe, nourishing space for young people to practice, where the culture of our generation in the United States is shared and directly understood. Many of us have been in Sanghas where we are the only people of our generation, and where we felt not entirely comfortable. In larger gatherings, our Sangha members often hear the refrain, "You practice so deeply for being so young." Together we recognize that this kind of comment is meant as praise or flower-watering, but we acknowledge that it often feels condescending.

Recognizing the need for intergenerational practice and the invaluable wisdom of our elders, most practitioners in our Sangha also practice with a second Sangha in their local area. The Young Adult Sangha, then, is more like a special place to practice and discuss issues that are, at times, specific to our lives as young people in the year 2000. We are so happy that our Sangha has grown so beautifully and are thankful for the opportunity to support the practice of young adults in our area.

Michael Trigilio, True Birth of Peace, is the Program Coordinator at the Community of Mindful Living. To learn more about the Bay Area Young Adult Sangha, e-mail Michael@iamhome.org or call (510)527-3751.

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Happiness Is Not an Individual Matter

By Mathilde Pieneman One morning I was walking with Peter, a thirteen-year-old boy when a man on a bike rode past us. Peter pointed his fingers like a gun at the man. "Why did you do that?" I asked him. He replied, "Just because." I explained to Peter that this simple, unfriendly gesture might have made the man very sad. This made a big impression on Peter. Then I told him that a smile could also have a great effect on somebody. He was even more impressed. I encouraged Peter to experiment with a smile. He smiled at the next person who passed, and she smiled back. This seemed like a miracle to him. I told Peter he could try it on the next shift of staff, and he asked me if his smile had made me happy that morning.

I was working one-on-one with Peter at Sun Home, a psychiatric children's home. Peter was wearing special ankle- and wristbands, which could be locked together if he became aggressive. He has a history of neglect and trauma. He is like a bomb. The potential is always there for him to explode in anger. Peter gets irritated easily, and out of frustration he engages in verbally and physically aggressive behavior, such as threatening, scratching, kicking and throwing knives.

Earlier that morning, Peter had asked to play a game on the computer. When I told him he had a limited time to play, he got upset. In order not to escalate the situation, I remained calm. I followed my breathing and smiled to prevent myself from being caught in a personal conflict with Peter. It took nearly one hour for him to calm down. Finally, we agreed to go for a morning walk with all the children before playing computer games. 

When we came back from the walk, we had breakfast together. Peter practiced smiling and saying friendly words to the other children. He saw that he could cause the other children and staff to be happy. This insight made him very happy. And me too.

mb27-Happiness

Mathilde Pieneman lives in Zeist, Holland.

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