Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

February 6, 2005—April 18, 2005

February 6, 2005
My friend Kathy has been grieving a loss, and that makes me think about the process of grief, and about the difference between dukkha and suffering.

Suffering illuminates. It is spacious. It opens a door that allows us to see the world more clearly. In our pain, through our pain, we come to know how large our heart is. It is, if you like, spiritual, bringing us a more profound relationship to the terms of life.

Dukkha, which I call distress (the fear, anger, guilt, envy, aversion that may overlay suffering) is contracting, closes us in, sends us false messages about the terms of life. We may need to go through it in order to exorcise it, but the result is a casting out, as when you clean out the attic: “I don’t need this any more.” It is a therapeutic, not a spiritual experience.

When we are grieving a loss, we need to distinguish between these. We need to enter into the suffering with our full being, because it has great value. The distress we can stay with only as long as necessary to see it, discard it as worthless. If we can’t discard it, we should talk to a friend or a therapist. The suffering doesn’t require a therapist—if we choose to share it with a friend, that is only for “company” on a profound and valuable journey, not to “fix it.”

Here (see the note for January 8, 2005), I am using “suffering” to denote pain that is not dukkha.

March 10, 2005
A friend who meditates tells me, “My meditation is no good, but it’s changed my life.” I love it. Of course, we all know it will be better when she ceases to judge it, but we all know how hard that can be, too. I assume she means it’s no good because she still has a lot of thoughts. I don’t think that the temporary cessation of our thinking is essential for meditation—clearly not, since her life is changed. When I talk with friends who practice, I still hold out that it’s important to keep that intention. Even if you know you’re going to be thinking nonstop right up to the bell, it helps to start with Thich Nat Hanh’s mantra, Clear my mind of mental processes. Why? Because for many of us the notion is profoundly, if unconsciously, ingrained that when we are not thinking, we are somehow wasting our time. We need a counter to that conviction.

March 14, 2005
Most of us find uncertainty really difficult, and try to plot, plan, leap to conclusions rather than endure its pain. I was talking with Kathy at lunch today, and she confessed how difficult uncertainty was for her to bear.

But uncertainty has two faces. Not knowing may mean that something unthinkably awful may happen. But not knowing also may mean that something that we thought would be unthinkably awful will turn out to be a wonderful gift. Living comfortably with uncertainty means being equally open to the unexpected good as the bad. Kathy just went through a nightmare of illness with her husband that turned out, through the nightmare, to be one of the best and richest times of her life. The less we try to seal our lives into airtight certain boxes, the more open we are to receiving life’s surprising gifts. So it’s true that if we don’t close our minds in judgment of the person we just met, we may find that we have spent our time with a bore. But we may discover he’s just one of those people who takes more than three minutes to be interesting.

April 18, 2005
Sometimes, faced with political or personal issues, we spend time pondering whether a particular act will lead to a greater good or greater harm. This kind of reflection is valuable. But today I recognized that there is a bedrock, the knowledge of which can support us at those times when we are immobilized by uncertainty: Any act of caring contributes to the richness of the world. Any act of cruelty contributes to the impoverishment of the world. Perhaps they will have other consequences—the caring act may cause some terrible unforeseen suffering; the cruel act may—for example—result in a law that prevents many others from suffering in the future. (So much for karma made simple.) But the acts themselves lighten or darken our world, whatever follows.

Today I learned from Chogyam Trungpa how to view other people correctly. I think it came from his discussion of basic goodness. In “The Genuine Heart of Sadness”, he observes how we relate to the sun or the sky. “We don’t reject the sun and the moon, the clouds and the sky. We accept them. We accept that the sky is blue; we accept the landscape and the sea...Basic goodness is that basic, that unconditional. It is not a ‘for’ or ‘against’ view, in the same way that sunlight is not ‘for’ or ‘against.’” I see more clearly than I have before that this is how I can view the mentally ill or drug-blurred homeless people whom I encounter on the San Diego streets—it is how at the Homeless Sleep-Out I sometimes, though not always, did. Part of my shyness in the early hours came, I think, from the uneasy feeling that I should be “for” or “against” them, rather than quietly and completely accepting them—appreciating them—-in their individual uniqueness.