As I walked with the Sangha through the Oak Grove at Deer Park last summer I heard myself say, “I am a good wife.” I was startled and happy to hear that spontaneous belief. For years, when I became irritated, impatient, or outright angry with my husband, I would say to myself, “What a lousy wife I am. He didn’t deserve that. I was feeling bad about myself and took it out on him. Why does he stay married to me?” It wasn’t that I had said or done anything really awful, and I knew that my own suffering was the cause of my feelings and behavior. Later that day, while listening to the Dharma Talk, I realized that the time was right for me to become an Order of Interbeing aspirant. Enough of my own suffering had been transformed that I could aspire to the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings in order to build on my practice experiences and further transform my suffering. The source of my faith and enthusiasm for practicing mindfulness is the experience of transformation I have seen in my own life and the relief and joy that comes with transformation. Before I started to practice in 2007, I acted in ways that were petty, vindictive, mean spirited, or judgmental. Each time, I would chastise myself and vow to be a kinder, better person, but nothing changed. What I didn’t see was the direct connection between my behavior and my own big melting pot of internal suffering. I did see that feeling anxious and insecure about myself was the common antecedent to the behaviors that I wanted to change in myself. But I didn’t know how to become less anxious and more secure. I felt hopeless to change what I didn’t like in myself.
After a year or so of practicing mindfulness in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, I began to notice that I was less likely to act in ways that hurt others. I was more patient and accepting of others. Since I hadn’t done anything to directly change myself, I realized that the changes must be related to my daily sitting practice and from faithfully attending Sangha every week. This was a stunning realization. I realized that I didn’t have to try to change, but rather I could keep practicing and noticing my thoughts and feelings as I had been doing. I decided to stop trying to purposefully change and just keep sitting. What a relief!
Not too long after starting to practice, I also began to see a therapist with the goal of reducing the suffering I felt regarding over my son’s chronic illness. This wonderful therapist listened deeply and held my suffering with me. He also gently told me that the way to decrease my suffering was to feel it and to share it, just like what the Buddha taught. I had been doing the opposite for years. I used to try to hide and contain my own suffering for fear of burdening others and for fear that if I started letting it out, it would be so big that it would never stop. However, my suffering steadily increased and from time to time erupted in anger and frustration almost as if it had a life of its own. My husband and son were often in the line of fire when these eruptions occurred. And I was always deeply disappointed in myself afterward. I wondered why I couldn’t control myself?
Although I was doubtful that others would want to hear about my suffering, I began sitting down with my husband when I was overwhelmed with sorrow and shared my grief with him. I asked him to just listen without offering any solutions, and he did this beautifully. I felt great relief, and over time my sharing was easier and less intense. I also started noticing sooner than before when –my feelings were starting to build up and I needed to sit down with my husband. I also started sharing my suffering with my Sangha. My pain has continued to get smaller and less likely to erupt on its own. It’s still there and when the seed gets watered, I know what to do to take good care of it. I come back to my breath using the gatha “Breathing in, this moment feels like this. Breathing out, this moment feels like this,” over and over. Over the past seven years what I have longed for has gradually happened. As I have continued to transform my own suffering, I am kinder and more compassionate toward others. It feels magical to me at times. How could sitting for -thirty minutes every day, going to Sangha every Saturday morning, attending Days of Mindfulness regularly at Deer Park Monastery and participating in Mindfulness Retreats with our teacher and the Fourfold Sangha bring about the changes that eluded me for so many years? Amazing!
All of this is the source of my faith in the practice. Becoming an OI aspirant this past summer has added a new momentum and joy to my life. I meet twice a month for coffee with my local OI Mentor and Skype once a month with my OI Dharma Teacher mentor. Both of my mentors listen deeply without judgment and without trying to fix anything. They reflect back what they hear me say and offer me guidance based on their own experiences with the practice.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I was telling my OI Mentor about how I got angry with my husband and that I saw how my frustration at our cluttered little house had been building over the prior days. Instead of taking good care of my anger, I was caught in my old habit energy of trying to contain and manage it because I didn’t believe that my need for order and space was as important as my husband’s needs.
My mentor suggested a weekly “heart meeting” where my husband and I could each talk about what was going on for us while the other listened deeply. My husband and I both practice Non- Violent Communication (NVC) and so we decided to meld together the practices of Beginning Anew from the Plum Village tradition (i.e. flower watering, expressing regrets, hearing the other person’s hurt and expressing our own hurt) with the practice of reflecting back what we heard the other person say and what they wished for (i.e. expressing empathy by guessing at the other’s feelings and needs) that is integral to NVC. At our heart meetings we haven’t yet had any regrets or hurts to share but have enjoyed watering each other’s flowers and hearing what the other has on their heart.
I also shared with my Mentor about my disappointment in myself when I act in unskillful ways. She said she had realized through the teachings that this disappointment reflects craving, wanting to be something other than what one is, and that craving causes suffering. I hadn’t recognized disappointment of this sort as a form of craving until that moment and realized it was true for me as well.
I see more and more that practicing what my favorite t-shirt says, “Be Beautiful, Be Yourself,” is a dharma door to stopping my lifelong craving to be something other than myself. During my sitting meditation, I begin with, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out” “Breathing in, I follow my in breath to the end. Breathing out, I follow my out breath to the end.” Once I feel settled, I get in touch with my body by saying, “Breathing in, this moment feels like this. Breathing out, this moment feels like this,” over and over while letting go of any thoughts that come up. Finally, I practice accepting myself as I am by saying, “Breathing in, I remember that to be beautiful is to be myself. Breathing out, I smile to all of myself.”