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Tag Archives: suffering

let’s face it

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One of the key insights articulated by the Buddha (known as the First Noble Truth) is that to live involves suffering. This is neither morose nor pessimistic, but a fact. A fact we pleasure-seeking creatures would rather avoid. We’d rather believe that “all is good,” tell each other to “be happy,” and hope that “tomorrow is another day” and “this too shall pass.” Yes, to all of those — and yes, suffering is inevitable — and yes, the sun will shine again.

Reflecting on my everyday experience helps explain this seeming contradiction. Hardly a day goes by that I’m not in some physical discomfort, from mild aches to severe pain. Several fingers joints hurt, as do my knees, lower back, and neck. Tests point to rheumatoid arthritis and herniated discs. Not much I can do but to learn to live with them and reduce their impact with yoga, meditation, and keeping active.

But ever so often my mind goes to “poor me” and “this is not fair.” I don’t like what’s going on. It shouldn’t be this way. In short, life should be free of pain and hassle. Of course it isn’t and never will be. Fact: we have to endure sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and death. Fact: we have to cope with heartbreak, loss, grief, and separation from those we love. Fact: from time to time, we’ll be lonely, frustrated, hurt, disappointed, and enraged. Fact: No amount of “being good” or “living right” can guard us against the human condition.



face it: you are alone

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In her latest blog post, our friend Tess reports on changes in her life: she’s got a full-time job and is able to pay her bills. For that she has to get up before 5 in the morning to catch several bus connections, only to return 12 hours later, exhausted. “And trust me,’ she writes, “I’m eternally grateful … really I am. It’s just been a shock to my system and I’m finding a real test to staying present. My ego is having a heyday in convincing me that … I deserve better, that I should be … living over a bakery in Paris.”

O how I know that voice! There’s always something lacking, be it food, love, health, money, things, or enough rain for the garden. What is this dissatisfaction, I wonder, this longing for what is not, all the while dismissing or overlooking that which is? There’s a line in a long Buddhist sutra:

The Way is perfect like vast space, where there’s no lack and no excess.
Our choice to choose and to reject prevents our seeing this simple truth.

In her book on Mindful Eating, Zen teacher Chozen Bays offers clues as to the cause of my pervasive dissatisfaction. “Heart hunger,” she suggests, “is satisfied by intimacy. 

Each of us is fundamentally alone in the world. No one can know us to the bottom of our being. No one can know all our thoughts. No one can know completely the deepest longings of our hearts. No one, not even the person we are closest to, can experience life as we do. The realization that we are fundamentally alone can be a source of sadness, or grief.”

So, once more, instead of looking for magic explanations I’m called to take refuge in simple awareness. Not to make loneliness to go away, but to welcome it unreservedly. This alone feeling is neither a personality flaw nor a curse inherited from my family of origin (as I’ve always thought). It comes with being an authentic human being.

source: Bays, J. C. (2009). Mindful eating: a guide to rediscovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food. Boston: Shambhala, p. 58. image: when I googled for an “alone” image, I found mostly people in tears: sad and miserable. Photo above taken during week-long walk along the Mosel River: alone and happy.  

practicing with everyday distress

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Zen teacher Hogen Bays — along with Chozen Bays — has been my spiritual guide and co-abott of Great Vow Zen Monastery for ten years. He writes: 

“There is so much in the news that reminds me of the first noble observation of Buddhism: that there are problems, serious problems everywhere. From the giant catastrophes such as the earthquake in Japan, the violence in Libya and the 450,000 people displaced by civil war in the Ivory Coast to one family’s struggles with illness and joblessness. Everywhere we turn we are reminded that no one is safe from difficulty and distress. It is almost impossible not to become anxious when we look honestly at the possible disruptions and challenges that we are facing and may have to face. What hope do we have? How can we live? What can we rely upon?

One thing is certain, that when confronted with life’s very real challenges, knowing theories about timeless wisdom is no help. When we are laying in bed at night and overwhelming anxiety wells up in our hearts, knowing how we ‘should’ respond does not help. When we are hungry even world class photos of food are not filling. Rocked by trauma, how we are ‘supposed’ to feel, what we ‘should’ understand, what we ‘think’ we know, is of little support. A real catastrophe washes away all our hopes, dreams, shoulds and oughts.

For me, this is when spiritual practice becomes extremely compelling. Usually, our spiritual and psychological lives revolve around how to be more happy, effective or successful. But when we know death is coming (and a lot sooner than we hoped) there are more urgent questions: “What is it that is alive right here?” “Where can I turn for help?” “What is real right now?” “Who is the one who is suffering?” “What is the truth that is always present?” When we are compelled to ask these questions no one else’s answers are of any use. What we have read, believe or been told will not do!  We must know for ourselves!

Of course, writing about this matter requires words and so it seems that these questions are intellectual and require thinking. These questions are like the finger pointing at the moon. The words only direct our attention to what is more intimate than words. What is more intimate than words is our direct experience. It is not a particular experience. We naturally meet crises with an intense aliveness, a compelling demand from deep inside us to look at what is real. It may present as anxiety, or numbness, anger, deep depression, or curiosity, but whatever our experience our attention is caught. It is our deepest life saying, “pay attention!”

This is what we can always take refuge in – the compelling experience of being alive. This experience is the essence of all seeing, hearing and feeling. It permeates all body, emotions and thought. In fact everything that comes forward whether we regard it as magnificent or dreadful comes from the same source. No matter what comes towards us or from within us, this is our ultimate refuge.

This attention to the source of life is a refuge available at all times, in every place. But we must practice and recognize it. Initially we have to learn to turn our attention away from our thoughts and conceptual mind. We let the churning of our minds still, like allowing the mud to settle so we can see the water. But, then we turn our awareness to seeing both mud and water, to seeing thought and the space in which it is held. We experience life and creation, death and destruction and the space in which they are held. We see ourselves respond completely to each changing condition. And whether our responses are skillful or unskillful they are all held in the dreamlike nature of our own life. This is the essence of practice. This is refuge.”


a case of reactivity

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The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked,“If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. This second arrow is optional.”

I looked for this story early this morning, after waking up with the “I missed the boat with that presentation” on my lips. Yesterday morning  I gave a short talk on the Buddhist perspective on spiritual care to a group of new hospital volunteers. I’d been given three questions and prepared a two-page handout on suffering and impermanence, as well as pointers on how to be with a person in long-term care. But my actual talk went off course as I spoke mostly about my personal experiences in visiting patients. Afterwards, and still this morning, I felt as if I’d let down the inviting teacher and his students: that I’d failed, provided a dis-service.

That’s why the arrow story: first a mistake, then recrimination. To make a mistake (if indeed that what it was) is one thing, a reasonable assessment. To then criticise and shame is unnecessary, feels like abuse. As Gil Fronsdal writes in The Issue At Hand, “Many times the first arrow is out of our control but the arrow of reactivity is not.” And– 

Mindfulness itself does not condemn our reactions. Rather it is honestly aware of what happens to us and how we react to it. The more cognizant and familiar we are with our reactivity the more easily we can feel, for example, uncomplicated grief or straightforward joy, not mixed up with guilt, anger, remorse, embarrassment, judgment or other reactions

I got up early to write this post and then to sit on the cushion — to find the space between what happened and what my ego is making of it. Between feeling incompetent and just being. “Freedom,” writes Fronsdal, “is not freedom from emotions; it is freedom from complicating them.”



there’s no quick fix

A flurry of emails has alerted me that the great Buddhist teacher “X” is coming for a multi-day, multi-dollar extravaganza to a campus nearby. Several acquaintances are excited that they’re going, that they’ve already registered for an event that’s still six months in the future!

Obviously, there’s a hunger for such gatherings and I’m glad that hundreds will be able to go (if they can spare the time and have the money). At the same time it troubles me to see people flocking to podcasts, books, CDs, webinars, and sacred events to hear someone tell them how to find a better way to live.

Attending a lecture by a celebrity teacher may well offer a spiritual high and open the door to an awakened path. But what happens when the buzz wears off (as it will) and life’s messiness floods back? When the high of another’s enlightened words becomes muffled by the drudgery of everyday ordinariness? What then?

What’s needed (and don’t take my word for it) is a sustained practice of mindfulness. A practice of taking responsibility for our own awakening. An awakening from the delusion that all will be well, if only … a better job will come along, health improves, relationships blossom, neighbours cooperate, violence disappears, politicians speak the truth, a cure for cancer is found, the war on drugs is won, friends don’t die, and so on.

Wishful thinking diverts attention from the reality of everyday living. Fact is that the world’s not a safe place, illness and death are inevitable, and chaos is the natural order of things. Regular meditation* offers a set of tools — free of charge and easily accessible — to help calm our agitated mind and literally come to our senses. It can take us to our innate wisdom, remind us of our birthright to be at ease, help our hearts unfold amid the confusion.

* emphasis on regular — if only 10 or 15 minutes each day. 


ok to weep during meditation?

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The other night I stood outside the zendo, ready to gesture arrivals towards places to park along the street. At one point I stepped into path of an oncoming vehicle, assuming that I knew the driver. Later she explained by email, “I was all set to come to meditation … but felt so teary that I didn’t make it. I got as far as driving to your house and almost ran you over on the street  – sorry. I felt too distressed to come in.”

I remember many a sesshin (weeklong Zen retreat) when I sat sobbing on my cushion. The rule at my first training monastery was “don’t sniffle. no blowing noses. let it flow!” Sitting still alongside others, allowing the body to calm and thoughts and emotions come and go, often brought me to tears. A thousand sadness from deep within, with no one coming to make it all better. Then a bell and another round of … bowing … chanting … sitting … shovelling snow …

When I first opened my house for others to meditate (about eight years ago, then on Galiano Island), I once complained to my teacher that people would come once or twice, then vanish. Is there anything I should do (differently) I asked? “Just be there as advertised,” he replied, “unlock the door, straighten the cushions, light incense, and sit. People will come when they need to — when their suffering takes them there.”

And so I’ve been sitting ever since. May all beings be free from tears and pain.



in the face of distress

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(Based on actual events.) We were having tea. My friend sat quietly, eyes looking past mine, not her usual way. “What’s up?” I asked. Oh, nothing. Wait. Sit. Listen. Don’t crowd her.

My parents are divorcing. Everything’s chaotic at home. I’m getting the brunt of their anger. I wish I could ….. “Could what?” Protect them from each other, maybe?

“What about you, how are you coping?” I’ve seen this coming for a long time, we all have. “How are you coping?” I ask again. When one of them speaks to me in anger, I know it’s not at me personally … but still, I feel hurt.

We sat in silence for a little while, until she spoke again, this time looking straight at me: I’m learning to see that it’s not my fault. And I’m careful not to be lured into their dance. One of  them is looking to fight, to argue, to … avoid dealing with what’s going on, I guess.

“You’re taking care of yourself, huh? It may seem selfish to focus on your own well-being with all that suffering going on around you. To practice compassion — to support your parents and your brothers during this time of high stress — requires that you take care of our own heart, first and always. There’s a temptation — at least it is for me — to want to step in, give advice (grin!), make chaos go away.”

After she’d left, I turned to a book by Ezra Bayda which has helped me navigate some rough seas in the past. He writes:

Dense and intense emotional reactions can leave us feeling lost and overwhelmed. In these darkest moments, the [Zen] practice is to bring awareness to the center of the chest, breathing the painful emotions, via the inbreath, directly into the heartspace. It’s as if we were breathing the swirling physical sensation right into the heart. Then, on the outbreath, we simply exhale. We are not trying to do or change anything; we’re simply allowing our heart center to become a wider container of awareness within which to experience distress.

text: Bayda, E. (2003). being zen: bringing meditation to life. Boston: Shambhala, p. 92. image: “Two tea cups” by Benoit Philippe at