Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

August 15, 2014—October 17, 2014

August 15, 2014
After an experience on retreat at Spirit Rock with both sloth and torpor and pain, I plunged into serious study of Buddhist approaches to pain—Shinzen Young and Ajahn Maha Boowa (see July 3, 2014). Just after finishing a second reading of Ajahn Maha Boowa (Straight from the Heart), I had a sudden and fairly acute bout of osteoarthritis—very different from the kind of “sitting” pain I’ve experienced in the past couple of years. It has felt oddly like a gift from the universe—as if saying, “you are now ready to take this on, to practice with what you have been studying.” In the first days there was also the sloth and torpor, so I had a chance to revisit the experience of Spirit Rock. I practiced as Ajahn Maha Boowa suggested, not denying the pain or pushing it away—noticing it, observing it, yet as something separate from the body it was visiting.

There are many advantages to maintaining that separation, not the least being that it educates us in awareness of reality—the true separation of the skandas, despite our attempts to package and solidify them.

It also became clear how identification with our pain tends to create suffering. If I see the pain as “my” pain, that almost always conjures up the idea that I must be doing something wrong—because if it’s “my” pain, I should be able to control it.

At the same time, the fact that we separate from the physical pain does not mean we ignore it. The fact that we are separate from a sick child does not mean that we don’t sit with her, ask her exactly where and how much she hurts, attend to her, comfort her. However, the parent who is over-identified with the sick child will be anxious and worried and make the illness worse.

August 19, 2014
The physical pain has passed, and in its place, following several more intense than usual experiences of tonglen that aroused deep grief in my being, I’ve had occasion to turn my attention to the similarities in our relationship to each form of pain.

The pain in our heart isn’t different from the pain in our leg. It isn’t part of our heart, it doesn’t belong in our heart—our heart is just the place where it is temporarily resting. Our heart is like a hotel for the pain—the pain could go to our stomach or our head, it just chose our heart. Different people choose different hotels for their emotional pain.

In the same way, even though we broke a bone in our leg, the pain isn’t part of the leg, it doesn’t belong in our leg—our leg is just the temporary resting place, the hotel. The pain comes and goes, sometimes it leaves the hotel for a sandwich or even to go to a movie. It can switch hotels, and come to rest in a place that is totally inappropriate—as when the leg is amputated and we experience the floating pain as ”phantom pain.” We are all familiar with the understanding that tooth pain can rest in a tooth different from the infected one.

These understandings help to desolidify and so diminish the power of pain. It is one thing to believe that an unfriendly, even cruel person has come to live in our home with us 24/7, and another to realize that we are just a hotel—we don’t know how long he’ll stay or if and when he’ll go out sometimes, and this lack of certainty makes his presence a bit more bearable.

August 20, 2014
Ajahn Maha Boowa has a wonderful way of talking about the body, and one of his observations is that “the body orders you around.” When you think about it, this is very apt for what is going on at almost every moment of your life, as you scratch, wiggle your toes, cross your legs and more.

I was delighted this morning to realize that it is also true that your mind orders you around. This feels exactly true. For the less experienced practitioner, the occasions when we actually control where our minds are taking us are relatively few. Indeed one of the changes that takes place with practice is that more and more our minds know to keep quiet until they are actually useful to us. They don’t take us on fishing trips trying to catch lake trout in the ocean.

September 11, 2014
I often hear people say of their abusive parents: “They did the best they could.” Always I wonder what those words mean to that person, since those same words can come from very different places.

One is a place where we have worked through so much rage and grief that we can begin to glimpse our parents, our boss, our partner, our landlord, the person who cuts ahead of us in traffic, through God’s eyes, the same eyes that can see Hitler or Pat Pol as suffering beings who did the best they could (which of course is true).

Too often perhaps, “they did the best they could” comes from someone who has grown weary with the child’s form of anger, her blaming and self-pity, and does not understand that there is another way of being with that suffering.

This premature forgiveness (August 30, 2009, September 16, 2009, November 1, 2010, June 1, 2012, May 25, 2013) can shortcut the larger freedom that comes from realizing that we can end our pain at a deeper level by going to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the “root” of the child’s suffering—the root, not just the visible branches.

By going to the root, we allow ourselves to take in for the first time, not just our painful story, and instead the full magnitude of what was done to a truly vulnerable being. We can then feel, instead of the child’s blaming, a profoundly different and freeing kind of anger, an adult anger which is really fierce love for the child who was abused and unseen. Instead of the child’s self-pity, we can allow ourselves far more profound compassion and respect for a small being who suffered more than we have ever permitted ourselves to know—and who still suffers within our adult hearts.

A weary “they did the best they could”—which really means “I give up,” rather than, “my childhood is transformed”—is too often the glue that can hold our defilements in place. Too often we have simply displaced the child’s self-pity, the child’s blaming from our parental figures and plopped them onto our boss, our partner, our landlord, the person who cuts in front of us in traffic. Without the voyage to the root, the suffering continues.

“They did the best they could” prevents us from ever fully knowing, as an adult, either the real terms of our childhood suffering or the real meaning of forgiveness, which requires us to know deeply what it is we are forgiving.

October 17, 2014
Last week during discussion in an otherwise silent retreat, one woman mentioned that she had developed multiple personalities from intense early trauma. She doesn’t any more, and is now what “multiples” call a “singleton,” and although her life is much easier in many ways, she finds that she is grieving for those lost personae that served her so well. When life as one person became too painful or overwhelming, she could switch to another life—now she has to stick with the pain she’s in and see it through.

When we were talking after the retreat, I suggested that maybe what she was now experiencing was similar to what is so often experienced by singletons who practice Buddhism as they lose their hold on their identities—grief, loss, anxiety. She seemed cheered to know that her experience was shared, and we agreed that the stage of deep understanding she is coming into, instead of Non-Self, is Non-Selves.