hearts that awaken

I’m stretching my right brain a bit and trying out some abstracts. Thankfully, this is a low-risk proposal with few consequences to others and the world.  As with most of my spontaneous attempts at changing my mind’s stuck points, I started off on the wrong foot.  I thought I was splashing grays on the paper but in turned out to be sepia.  And yet… and yet… the tones seem quite at home and what was meant to be curtains of ethereal grays and blues ended up being something about earth and sky.

So it was with this past weekend.  Frank and I attended a retreat organized by the local sangha which practices in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition.  It was being held in a center that is the home of the Grey Nuns (now the Grey Sisters).  The building is a residence for the Grey Sisters, a retreat center, a community resource for counselling and activities, and a museum of the history of the Grey Nuns.  And what started out as a practice of being in the present became a journey into my past.

You can read about the founder of the Grey Nuns, Marguerite D’Youville, here; a fascinating story of one woman’s life in the New France of the 1700’s, surviving adversity, and transforming her suffering into a path of service.  Her work with the poor was so reviled by the culture of the mid-1700’s that she and her supporters were mocked with the name “Les Grises” – the “grey women” or the “drunken women.”  Yet, despite the enormous opposition, they grew as a community and persevered to found and fund numerous hospitals, shelters, and schools globally.

Where does my past fit in this?  Walking down the hall of history at the retreat center and reading of the various schools the Grey Nuns founded, I realized I had been taught by them and two in particular might well have watered the seeds of practice for me.  As a child in elementary school, I only knew them as The Nuns and Sr. Leger in particular as the woman who saw through my defensive posturing and deep into my potential.  I lost touch with them only to reconnect with them in the Grey Nuns retirement residence in Montreal about 10 years ago when I was there for another retreat (in TNH’s tradition again).  There are few specific memories however what I remember of our relationship is set deep in my bones.  I know this because when went to meet Sr. Leger, I stood up taller and shook the cobwebs out of my brain.  She was never one to be tolerant of my tendency to sloppiness – whether it was in body or mind.  And through her persistence, I realize now that she transmitted to me an unrelenting devotion to the spirit of practice.

The pictures in the hallways were interesting relics.  What penetrated me was the interconnections and the surfacing of the past in a new perspective and with new understanding.

it just is

The one who bows and the one who is bowed to
are by nature boundless.
That is why the communication between them
is inexpressibly perfect. 

This gatha is chanted at the beginning of the ritual of touching the earth (prostrations).  Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Teachings on Love that when we practice touching the earth, we

surrender our pride, notions, fears, resentments, and even our hopes,
and enter the world of ‘things as they are.’ 

On Monday, I described a breathing meditation that began with opening to the entirety of our experience; an expansive bowl in which everything sits, non-judgmentally, non-preferentially.  The second stage of the breathing meditation is to bring our attention to the breath at the nostrils.  Rest there, allowing the bowl of awareness to simply sit on the rise and fall of the breath.  In this stage, we rest.  Awareness rests.  Thoughts, desires, wilfulness, control all rest.  There is nothing made, nothing contrived, nothing given, nothing taken away from the experience in this moment.  This is equanimity.

The practice of equanimity is a practice of love.  It is another chamber in the heart that beats for all beings.  Like lovingkindness and resonant joy, it is a practice of surrender.  We are asked to hand over all our ideas and opinions about this moment, this person.  The stories of attachment and betrayal, the tales of joy and woe – check them in at the cloakroom and don’t ask for a ticket to reclaim them.

Only then can we enter the boundless nature of relationship.


The heart is made up of four chambers and the kanji for “heart” is a schematic for it.  What I love about the script is the openness, the way it rolls off the brush to sit on the paper, an upright bowl ready to hold anything.  In our mindfulness courses, I describe a 3-stage breathing meditation that begins with allowing everything in the sense perceptions to fall into awareness, into a bowl.  Let it all drop into the well of awareness without judgment of or preferences for it.  A spacious containing of all that is present in that in- and out-breath.

When we let the entirety of our experience sit in the bowl of awareness, we begin to develop an understanding of what these perceptions, experiences are.  Usually though, we tend to push it away at first twinge or consume it ravenously at first delight with barely a sense of what it was.  Letting all the elements of our experience show themselves, their true nature, is an invitation to intimacy.

This is love.

Simple, bare awareness that is already open, accepting, and encompassing.

Love is the first of the Four Divine Abodes or the Four Immeasurable Minds.  It is known as maitri or metta.  It is not sentimental or cloying.  It is an honest, courageous willingness to be open (vulnerable) to the whole tidal cycle of our life – moment by moment.

Favourite books on metta:

Teachings on Love by Thich Nhat Hanh

Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg

Eight Mindfulness Steps to Happiness by Bhante Gunaratana

Happiness by Mathieu Ricard

flinching from eudaimonism in buddhism

Let me pick up on a hint of a theme from yesterday’s book review of Thich Nhat Hanh’s new novel, The Novice. Towards the end of the post, I commented that Thấy’s teachings offer an easy entry to Buddhism.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say he, like many teachers who are skillful, offers an apparently simple beginning to practice.  There is wisdom in this.  The teachings can be encouraging and lay a solid groundwork for deeper understanding as we continue on the path.  However, there is also a danger that we can fall into a flowery, vapid, and naive approach that gentle teachings can evoke.

It has always concerned me that “simple” is absorbed as “simplistic” and the evidence is rampant in the millions of catchy sayings that attempt to transport us from the truth of suffering into a facsimile realm of the Pure Land.  Tragically, this creates a blindness to the deeper teachings offered by teachers such as Thấy which are – under the child-like renditions – a complex integration of scripture and aids to practice.  Over the years, I have come to appreciate that his words, audio and written, are killing-sword koans whose edge we can skip over or on which we can impale our delusions.

I once said to a dharma teacher in Thấy’s tradition that Thấy offers an easy in but it’s a tough stay.  Practice, as Thấy teaches, demands an unrelenting devotion to being honest with oneself in every moment.  Try it for five if you question how hard this is.  And yet, the preponderance of his teachings seem to end up as sound bytes turning the nectar of compassion into a mind-numbing salve against the reality that the practice of Buddhism is not about salvation in this moment or any other.  It’s a true koan of our times.  How do such accessible teachings result in such a diversion from the intent of practice?

About the time of my struggle with this conundrum an email arrived pointing me to a delicious post by Glenn Wallis on “Flinching.”  As frightened as I am by the depth of Wallis’ erudition, I was compelled by his argument that there is a turning away from the truth of suffering, that we have developed a predictive, fallacious equation whose outcome variable is set as “deep joy.”  He refers to this perspective as “a eudaimonistic subterfuge” to which Buddhism is becoming heir.  If I grasp Wallis’ exegesis and in my simplistic terms, we Buddhists have taken a wrong turn in our understanding of the Dharma by making practice instrumental rather than intentional.  Not only have we let our fears about the true nature of reality get the better of us, we have become deeply desirous of a belief that a virtuous practice will reap a future of deep joy.  This utilitarian stance to practice is subtly subversive and the ground quickly becomes unstable because it is driven by avoidance of pain.  This is further emphasized by a recent retreat on the Tricycle page in which Rita Gross spoke out on “feel-good Buddhism.”

In psychotherapy, we call this a flight into health.  The patient, overwhelmed by what is required to make sincere and long-lasting change, suddenly gets better – a one-hit-one-session-wonder.  The therapist, anxious about the depth of intervention and the demands of sitting with the pain of the Other, flinches at the prospect and welcomes or even offers this endpoint of deep joy.  It is a collusion that creates a dynamic of mutual blindness.  Winding this thread back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, I wish had a peanut for every time I heard someone say, “If you just practice for three days, your depression will go away.”  Or, “If I could just sit in the presence of my partner’s anger and understand Interbeing, it will be ok.”  Well, if I had a peanut for each of these times, I’d be a happy elephant.

Here’s the unfiltered truth:  There are no promises.  Hope was a demon in Pandora’s Box.  Practice simply because there is no choice.  Don’t flinch from this.

the novice – a story about steadiness

The Novice by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh opens with a scene reminiscent of many stories in Buddhist lore used to explore that delicate balance between passion and desire.  Kinh Tam is the young novice of the title who, in the initial setting of the novel, sees a young woman standing at the edge of the monastery grounds holding a crying baby.  The implications are at once obvious and terrifying for the novice. 

This template story of monastics being accused of illicit affairs and resulting progeny is a familiar one for students of Buddhism.  There are parables and koans, a similar tale from Hakuin’s life and even the Buddha himself is said to have been accused of fathering a child.  How the perceptions of the world were met by them forms a powerful teaching of the Dharma.  The Eight Worldly Dharmas are inescapable and being thus, they form an intricate lesson of equanimity in meeting praise and blame, pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and disgrace.  The young novice joins a long line of worthy ancestors who face the dilemma of protecting ones own reputation or skillfully steping aside and holding true to practice.

But it isn’t just a story of steadiness in the face of false blame.  Kihn Tam’s life is in itself a process challenging the rigid concepts we face in treading a path of service.  The novice is a woman who leaves her emotionally dead marriage after a false accusation and enters a monastery disguised as a young man.  There, she fulfills her passion for living the Dharma while struggling with the moral distress of the fundamental misrepresentation of who she is.  The accusation of fathering a child provides another layer of moral dilemma; the resolution of the accusation is simple but the consequences for continuing in a spiritual life are enormous.  How Kinh Tam makes her choice and the effect on the people around her forms the heart of the novel. 

In the story of the novice’s spiritual conviction and dedication, Thich Nhat Hanh (or Thấy as his students refer to him) continues to show us how we can enter the Dharma through many levels of understanding.  It is a multi-layered story of a young person’s struggle with bearing witness to their own suffering, with cultivating steadiness in the face of not-knowing, and in nurturing skillful action.  It comes as no surprise that Thấy’s teachings through this story are in essence the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker: bearing witness, not knowing and compassionate action.  In fact, the guiding principle and resolution of every inner conflict is no different from that of an external one: compassionate and skillful action.  Through carefully described practices, Thấy moves the central character of the novel towards more and more skillful and compassionate ways of meeting her many challenges.  She chooses over and over again to hold steadfastly to the Dharma rather than take the easy way out.

There are some obvious difficulties in the narrative; some scenarios require a  significant suspension of doubt if not an out-and-out shift of reality.  However, this is not a novel in the tradition of thick plots and twisted rationales.  It is a parable pulling together skeins of Dharma and, when read through that lens, it is a simple teaching on a complex point of relationships.  In a social system where we find ourselves potentially reacting to the perceptions of others and faced with the duality of self and other, this is a timely reminder to be steady, see clearly, and not personalize the perceived attack on what is precious to us.  Ultimately, the story of Kihn Tam is not one of finding personal righteousness in tolerating the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but of realizing the truth of suffering and making that the call to practice, to be as the earth, water, fire and air which transform all that is given to them.

That being said, it is unfortunate that the story of Kihn Tam is followed by Chân Khong’s semi-autobiographical rendition of the various ills that befell early and more recent followers of Thich Nhat Hanh.  While I don’t diminish the violence the early practitioners suffered during the Vietnam conflict, the latter issue of Prajna Monastery and the eventual evacuation of the young monastics is misplaced in this book.  Not only is the juxaposition of a political issue with a novel-parable distracting to the lessons contained in “The Novice,”  it creates a sense that the novel might have been intended as a justification of the controversial process and resolution of the Prajna affair.

Thấy’s teachings are challenging.  I’ve said this many times in sangha and in the order of lay ordained practitioners: Thấy offers an easy entry to the Dharma.  Most people are attracted to the gentleness and peace of this powerful teacher.  We dive quickly into his words and just as quickly fall into the trap of believing that the mere recitation of Thich Nhat Hanh quotes is sufficient.  The true nature of practice, however, is the real challenge that Thấy offers us and may make it hard for many to stay the course.  Practice and have faith in the practice regardless of the conditions you find yourself in.  This is the heart of the Buddha’s teachings and, I believe, the heart of the story of The Novice.

tent of thorns

We can’t work for long in a competitive environment and not begin to feel the twinges of jealousy or find ourselves measuring our worth by external factors.  I should probably say, “I” though I suspect few of us escape the poisons of greed, resentment, and delusion/confusion on this count.

One of my patients calls it an “emotional brownout.”  We feel all those tight icky sensations in the pit of our stomach, vision is murky, and balance is wobbly.  It’s as if there isn’t enough juice in the veins to get ourselves out of a very familiar spiral into disappointment, self-criticism and even despair.  And as the years go by, I find it harder and harder not to feel that spiral tighten into a steeper slope when I’m confronted with “things not done” or “things not unfolding.”

All this came became more of a foreground discussion between Frank and myself after a class we taught on the bhrama viharas: equanimity and compassion, lovingkindness and resonant joy.  We divvy it up in pairs as a balance between healing practices and nourishing practices, respectively.  Lovingkindness and Resonant Joy are the nourishment in a relationship.  The keep us healthy and build strength, like vitamins.  Equanimity and Compassion play a role as relationships struggle with the typical strifes and sufferings of just being humans in full contact.  The four together form a health regimen that attends to building resilience and care giving.

In the class, we talked about the challenge of feeling joy in the achievements of life situations of others.  You have probably read this bhrama vihara as Sympathetic Joy or Altruistic Joy.  Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that may be too limited in its vision.  Feeling joy for another is not possible if we cannot feel joy ourselves.  He teaches that joy must include joy in ourselves as well and is only possible when we feel peace and contentment.  In other words, the joy we feel has to have some resonance with the other and that resonance is only possible when we feel a level of contentment in ourselves.

One of the obstacles to feeling a resonance in the joy of others arises out of our tendency to measure our worth and the worthiness of others by external means.  And in that mismeasure of our true nature, feelings of resentment rather than contentment arise.

I’ve been noticing what that lack of contentment feels like each time I’m faced with something I think I deserve but didn’t get or when someone has access to something that I feel they don’t deserve.  Judgments all, I know.  That’s my particular take on it; your storyline may vary a bit.  Nevertheless, when it is one of those autopilot stances to events, it’s like building a tent of thorny branches and taking refuge under them.  For a while that may work to keep the hurt out.  Build it thick enough (and I’d have to, given the huge number of events that happen in my day!) and it’s hard to find a way out from under the pile without getting even more scratched up.

This stack are the dead branches from the climbing roses.  It didn’t take long to accumulate.  In order to cut those branches, I had to reach deep into the bushes and lop them at the root.  My forearms look like they’ve been in a cat fight – and doesn’t that just sum it all up.  Resentments arise because, when the event happens, we reach deep into parts of ourselves that deliver irritation and hurt.  The parts that feel “less than,” personally affronted, or judgmental about our own capacities and accomplishments.  In other words, the only person we end up in a cat fight with is ourselves.

(Thanks to Adam Johnson, Mickie B., and Steven Hickman of UCSD’s Center of Mindfulness for offering great insights to this topic!)

participating in happiness

I’ve been scouring reams of published scholarly papers on spiritual wellbeing for my Chaplaincy final project.  There’s a comfort and – dare I say it? – familiar happiness in reading these articles, contemplating the implications of the various findings on the relationship between spiritual and mental health, and percolating the possibilities for future investigations.  Of course, what makes me happiest are the elegant statistical models and the anticipatory delight of long afternoons playing with data sets from our studies of spiritual and mental wellbeing.  Now the idea of statistical analyses may not tickle your fancy but if you ever want to make me happy, give me a data set.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s third factor of practice is to find happiness in our life.  It seems a simple enough task: find what makes you happy and just do it.  But, data sets notwithstanding, we each have a different view of what happiness is about.  In sangha, someone asked what it meant to find happiness in the moment, especially when the moment is filled with sorrow, loss, and uncertainty.  An equally important question is a cautionary one: how do I know that the search for happiness in this moment is not a denial of the reality of my life?  In psychology, it’s called “flight into health.”  In spiritual practice, it’s called a “spiritual bypass.”

Although we tend to believe that happiness is about feeling wonderfully pleasant sensations most of the time, happiness is actually not related to the intensity of pleasant feelings.  People who rate themselves as happy report more time feeling pleasant emotions even if they also feel unpleasant emotions.  So, the quest for peak moments of pleasant emotions is futile to experiencing happiness.  In fact, that quest is the very thing that creates dukkha.

Brickman and Campbell in 1971 defined this drivenness for pleasure as the “hedonic treadmill.” They pointed out two really important ways our craving dams up the potential for true happiness.  When we achieve or acquire something that makes us happy, we habituate to the feelings and set higher expectations.  This “new-toy-gone-old” combined with “more is better” is a potent mix that drives the addiction.   Now, here’s the scary part: we also adapt to the dissatisfaction we feel so we no longer are bothered by it to the same degree!  Put the two together and we find ourselves stuck in “hedonic neutral.”

Happily, there’s a way out!  Temperament and the ability to adapt our expectations to the event make a difference in how we experience events.  Staying open to the ever-changing features of our experience and the nature of the objective event also helps shift the flavour of our experience; this is mindfulness of the objects of mind. 

Certainly it’s a strong argument for continuously attending to what is present, to see that process as a constant invitation to take a new stance.  And what is present for me right now are twenty-five articles published in five erudite journals with delicious pedigrees, one cup of chai, sixty minutes of unfettered time, and two awesome analyses to bend my delusional mind around.

Find something you love.

And do it.

Even if only for a second.

Thank you for practising,