Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

December 20, 2012—December 23, 2012

December 20, 2012
A couple of weeks ago, I ordered two books from Amazon. I was looking forward to reading them. One was an anthology of writings by Buddhist chaplains, doing work similar to mine in hospitals, prisons, hospices, even the military. The other was a book by two artists I’ve met, Alice and Richard Matzkin, showing their art depicting aging, and their own feelings and thoughts about growing old.

The books arrived, and as I unwrapped them I suddenly was attacked by a familiar sharp anguish. I’ve experienced it a number of times in my life, an almost almost unbearable distress, the sense of forces too powerful to counter that are being assailed against me. The feelings have emerged at times when someone publishes something that is close to something that I have wanted to publish.

When these feelings have arrived, surprising me with their focussed intensity, it’s been obvious to me that they were about childhood envy of my sister, not being appreciated.

And still: here they were again. I found it baffling, especially since my hospital work is, as far as I’ve been able to discern, without ego, without the slightest need for acknowledgement, and I haven’t felt at all protective of my work on ageism in decades. The feelings seemed entirely unrelated to who I am now, and I thought I had recognized how they related to Little Cynthia. Mainly I was “fed up” with encountering this surge of dukkha at unexpected moments. I decided to tackle this uninvited guest once and for all.

I began with naming my feelings. They were a terrible mix of grief, anger and fear, a sense of being threatened. Already naming the feelings brings a sense of separation from the subject. But certainly not enough to change the revulsion and threat I felt at the thought of those books.

Then I reminded myself—not for the first time (see December 10, 2012)—to Drop the Object. Instead of labeling my feelings, I held myself to feeling them, like holding feet to the fire, determining that I would not turn away. I already knew those feelings well, but I knew them from trying to escape or explain them: the sharp pain in my heart, mixed with the cold grasping in the heart, mixed with the outrage rising hot behind my heart. This time I stayed with them long enough for them to yield their meaning. This time it was not the intellectual understanding that--of course--they represented the child’s suffering at being unappreciated. For the first time I penetrated into the exact nature of the suffering.

Recently I’ve observed that Little Cynthia, because she was not loved, was blocked in her desire to give love. It has become clear to me that while we always emphasize the child’s need to receive love, we radically undervalue her need to give love. It is my believed thought that the need to give love is primary, although it requires the foundation of love received in childhood in order to flourish. Once we have been given, as helpless children, the shelter and sustenance that we require for survival, our hunger to be appreciated, to be given to, comes from our conditioned natures. Our need to give love is basic—it is the most direct expression of our buddha natures.

To receive a gift draws something in to myself. To give means to extend out beyond myself, which is the direction of the universe, where our true selves belong.

On this day, sitting in the coffee shop I go to for reading, writing, processing, as I determined not to turn away from the painful feelings or struggle to ease them, I could for the first time see clearly exactly what was happening at those times when, coming across an article or a book review, I would feel the shock of that intense, almost unbearable pain.

As I held my gaze on the pain, I could feel what it was telling me: that I have gifts—my hospital work, my understandings of ageism—that I, like the Buddhist chaplains or the Matzkins, have wanted to give to the wider world. My suffering came when I felt that, despite my best intentions and efforts, not only was I unable to give, but I had to watch someone else with power and access being allowed to give.

Those words that came to me—power and access—clarified everything for me. I saw for the first time that as a child I had a great need to give to the world and it was blocked. What I had to give was seen as paltry, of no value. There was no one there to receive it, at the same time that someone with more power and access was encouraged to give her gifts. As a child, I could see, and painfully feel, without words, that what my sister was enabled to give blocked and rendered worthless my immense longing to give.

Sitting in the coffee house, at the moment I saw this, light shone on my darkness, and whoosh! I knew I would not need to feel that piercing pain again. Like a mini-sudden-enlightenment, my world felt light and simple. When I went home, shortly afterwards, the two books felt attractive and interesting. I immediately began to read the chaplaincy anthology, and I was sure I would appreciate the Matzkins’ work. I read the anthology steadily for days, with deep pleasure and interest, and my feeling was one of having found team-mates. The chaplains, the Matzkins and I were all working on the same field, doing valuable work, and that was satisfying.

I know what I have given. I do not know what you have received.
That motto that hung on my bathroom door a decade ago was one I could understand and assimilate: The act of giving is enough. What these experiences of anguish—not being read, not being heard--triggered was the ancient pain of not having the access to power to even be able to offer what I had to give.

December 21, 2012
I can see now that it was these same feelings from childhood about other people having power and access to give their gifts while that was denied to me that also arose and created suffering when I wanted so much to have access to people I perceived as the wise teachers of Buddhism—I saw them as being able to have valuable conversations from which I was excluded, no matter how much wisdom I might (or might not) have. I felt I could not give the gifts I had because folks with credentials wouldn’t associate with folks like me. As I write these words I am aware that until I had processed the immense frustration and longing of my childhood, I would have felt, even just in the act of writing those words, a triggering of that despairing frustration. I don’t experience that now.

December 23, 2012
When I was younger, though probably well into my sixties, I wasn’t a very good listener, unless someone was sharing something “important”—that is, from their heart. Then I was all attention.

I have ADD, and so I had difficulty focusing unless something could compel me to hyperfocus. Also, I longed for “real” communication and felt impatient with most ordinary talk, finding it too shallow to meet the depth of my need for spiritual connection.

Today I can listen well. I give thanks to meditation, which is—in the most practical of terms—an aid to focussing, and to my Buddhist practice which has opened my heart to the lives of others, and more recently the hospital experiences which have taught me that attending closely to “ordinary” communications is often a gateway to deeper connection.

Sometimes when someone is telling me something inconsequential, I can feel myself startled by the quality of my own genuine and unforced attention. As if I were saying to myself, “Wow! I am actually here, totally present, and glad to be here. Welcome to the world!”