Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Stopping, Calming, Resting, Healing

This is the title of my favorite chapter in Thich Nhat Hanh's book, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation, (pages 24-27).  I have heard it read so many times at Sangha (mediation group) both in PA and NJ.  And, I remember feeling so relieved when I heard Thay (dear teacher - Thich Nhat Hanh) give a dharma talk referencing the following concept from the chapter:

"Calming allows us to rest, and resting is a precondition for healing.  When animals in the forest get wounded, they find a place to lie down, and they rest completely for many days.  They don't think about anything else.  They just rest, and they get the healing they need."

"Our body and mind have the capacity to heal themselves if we allow them to rest."

I was on retreat during a very busy and ambitious time with my work as a high school math teacher and going to graduate school for my Master's degree in counseling.  I had always struggled with low energy and added more suffering to that by beating myself up about it.  In other words, feeling guilty when I needed to rest or when I did in fact take the time to rest. But, who can argue with nature? We're animals too, right?  However, I have to confess this is still a challenge for me.  Now with a young child and a marriage and work that I am growing, it is still difficult to give myself permission to rest or to get the opportunity to rest.

Our culture is so ambitious and fast paced.  It takes a lot of support and validation to give ourselves permission to stop and rest so that we can heal whether it is a physical ailment or emotional or mental strain.  Being on retreat with Thay and hearing the dharma has always been a profound practice in taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Do you know how that feels when you really feel held by someone or something and you can just let go and trust and that whoever you are, however you are is ok?

Part of that sense of surrender and softening comes when listening to Sister Chan Khong sing to us during Total Relaxation.  While I was driving to class today, a song she often sings came into my mind and I found myself singing it out loud: Please Call Me By My True Names which is a song based on the famous poem written by Thich Nhat Hanh with the same title.  During the dharma talk for class today, I was inspired to sing it as our discussion developed into talking about how when dealing with challenges, we can try to see the blessing in them and recognize the impermanence of all circumstances so that we can deal with our suffering and fully experience moments of joy since life is made up of both conditions.

My benign example of a blessing in the midst of suffering was being stressed about arriving to the airport for a recent trip with just enough time to board the plane given a last minute stop my husband needed to make before we got there.  While it was stressful for me, it turned out to be a blessing that we didn't have to sit on the plane as long as we would have otherwise since the air conditioning was under repair in 104 degree weather on the ground.  The plane was delayed over an hour as well but thankfully I had my Peppermint oil to help keep me cool.

The inspiration for the dharma talk which grew beyond this example from my life that came up in casual conversation about my trip was expanded by an introductory conversation I had prior to class with a student (like many others) who was telling me about a pain in her body and was wondering what yoga poses she could do to help.  I saw and heard her suffering from the pain in her body as well as the mental and emotional suffering it was causing her.  I know it is not always easy to hear but I try to remind myself and others as skillfully as I can that physical pain or any life difficulty can be seen as a teacher, maybe even a blessing - a chance to slow down and take care of ourselves - to rest and heal more than just our bodies.  Body is just one layer of the five koshas, just one of the seven chakras.  We are more than just our body.  But sometimes it seems like we need a wake up call from our bodies to stop and recognize that we need to heal and transform more than just our bodies.  We don't always listen when the mind or emotions are the siren.  But the body can be a loud enough siren to get our attention.

"We have to learn the art of stopping -- stopping our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness, the strong emotions that rule us. When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace.  We turn on the tv and then we turn it off.  We pick up a book and then we put it down.  How can we stop this state of agitation? How can we stop our fear, despair, anger, and craving? We can stop by practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful smiling, and deep looking in order to understand.  When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy." (pg. 24-25)

We can use the four noble truths to recognize that suffering is a part of life.  To believe that we shouldn't have to deal with suffering only causes us to suffer more.  Then we can see that there are root causes to our suffering and "call them by their true names."  This can often lead to insight into the suffering which can shine a light towards the path that can transform our suffering.  The third noble truth says there is an end to suffering (in other words, there is well being!).  And the fourth noble truth is the way to that well being: the noble eightfold path - which includes Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

Thay gives a summary of the Buddha's teaching techniques for calming body and mind on page 26:

(1) Recognition - If we are angry, we say " I know anger is in me. "
(2) Acceptance - When we are angry, we do not deny it.  We accept what is present.
(3) Embracing - We hold our anger in our two arms like a mother holding her crying baby.  our mindfulness embraces our emotion, and this alone can calm our anger and ourselves.
(4) Looking deeply - When we are calm enough, we can look deeply to understand what has brought this anger to be, what is causing our baby's discomfort.
(5) Insight - The fruit of looking deeply is understanding the many causes and conditions, primary and secondary that have brought about our anger, that are causing our baby to cry.  ...  With insight we know what to do and what not to do to change the situation.

I remember being on that retreat while I was also still dealing with grief over the loss of my mother and grandmother, struggling with my feelings about being single, and working on finding a sense of belonging in other places and relationships.  It was these feelings of suffering that allowed me to go deep into the practice and thus feeling held by the sangha in their mindful presence, the singing of the monastics and Sister Chan Khong, and just watching Thich Nhat Hanh walk and drink a cup of tea as well as soak up his gentle and clear presentation of the dharma.

I listened to my first dharma talk by Thay on a cassette tape given to me by a peer in my graduate program shortly after my mom died.  A few months later, a colleague at the high school where I taught invited me to my first Thich Nhat Hanh based sangha, and I knew I had come home.  "No mud, No lotus." I don't know where I would be now in navigating my life, the challenges and the joys, had I not discovered the path of practice. I am so thankful to Dave and Val for putting the teachings in front of me.

So here is Sister singing the chorus to this beautiful song, Please Call Me By My True Names:
(She is singing at the beginning of the video then it transitions into something else. You can stop at 52 seconds.)

Please call me by my true names
Please call me by my true names
So I can wake up, wake up
So the door of my heart could be left open
The door of compassion
The door of compassion

My joy is like spring so warm
It makes flowers bloom all over the earth
My pain is like a river of tears 
So vast it fills the four oceans

And just for good measure, here is another link with her facilitation of deep relaxation.  Perhaps you'd like to comfortably lie down and soak up her love and compassion, receive the warm embrace. And, even if you can't, just listen...

Sister Chan Khong's sweet singing for deep relaxation
Once you get to the site, scroll down and click on the video for
The Songs of Sister Chan Khong (1994)

The first song:

I hold my face in my two hands
My hands hollow to catch what might fall from within me
Deeper than crying, I am not crying

I hold my face in my two hands
To keep my loneliness warm
To cradle my anger
Shelter the flames from the windstorm that rages
Two hands preventing my soul from flying in anger