This past week I heard an interesting interview, made some years back, with Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who died on January 22, 2022. The On Being program included comments from two other persons who were greatly influenced by his practice. One was a police officer, Cheri Maples. She recalls that, after some experience of his teaching and practice, she was called to respond to a domestic situation. After she was able to have the mother and young daughter leave safely, she spoke with the father. He broke down and sobbed, and a week later she met him again and he told her that she had saved his live. She commented that she then started to realize that what she was dealing with in this and so many other situations was misplaced anger, because people were in incredible pain.
Her words recall those of spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, who says that pain that is not transformed is transmitted. In his words: “If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become cynical, negative, or bitter. This is the storyline of many of the greatest novels, myths, and stories of every culture. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbours, our co-workers, and, invariably, the most vulnerable, our children. Scapegoating, exporting our unresolved hurt, is the most common storyline of human history.”
I once read an interview with a man in his nineties who was asked the secret of his long life. When he realized that the person was not just looking for a cliché reply, he answered thoughtfully: “I have lived with my pain.” In other words, it seems that he recognized and faced the amount of suffering in his life without the need to inflict it, however unconsciously on others. Our pain can be perhaps visualized as something that blows through our life, whether as a gentle breeze or as a roaring gale, depending upon its kind and intensity.
Being in touch with any sorrow in our lives can be a source of openness and understanding of the sorrow of another. A person can them become, in the expression of Henri Nouwen, a “wounded healer.” Conversely, a medieval mystic, Mechtilde of Magdeburg has written: “When my loneliness becomes too great, I take it to my friends.” One response to suffering can be, not to inflict it on another who becomes a scapegoat, but to entrust it to another as a kind of gift. Instead of a story of scapegoating, it becomes a story of trust. John Shea, who writes on the meaning of story, has said; “Any sorrow can be borne provided a story can be told about it.”
Part of the process of growth lies in caring rather than hostility, in awareness rather than ideology, in a deep-seated hope rather than a naive optimism or a cynical despair, in a sense of humour rather than an angry bitterness. It involves being in touch with and naming our experience as authentically and accurately as possible. This may often take the form of a story entrusted to another. A key element here is learning to listen to one another, with the “ears of the heart,” as the Rule of St. Benedict expresses it. This is a process of learning to tune in to our own real feelings and to tune in to those of another. It is learning to respond from who we are rather than react from the surface.
In various ways and degrees, we can all say, “I hurt.” It lies deeper than but may be disguised or vented outwardly by anger, bitterness, cynicism, or destructive action. If we are in touch with our own pain, we may be far less likely to inflict it on others. One essential level of awareness is to recognize, even when we cannot feel it, that our worth does not depend upon the absence of pain or even the absence of mistakes.
Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term “mindfulness” to express this level of awareness in the face of sorrow. “When you are mindful, you are fully alive; you are fully present. You can get in touch with the wonders of life that can nourish you and heal you. And you are stronger, you are more solid in order to handle the suffering inside of you and around you. When you are mindful, you can recognize, embrace, and handle the pain, the sorrow in you and around you, to bring you relief. And if you continue with concentration and insight, you’ll be able to transform the suffering inside and help transform the suffering around you.”
He stresses the importance of living fully in the present and that attention to breathing is a means to this awareness. As we have said, attention to one’s breath is a basic form of meditation in Eastern and Western traditions. We have also mentioned that breathing is not just a private activity but is a relation with the earth, a participation in the whole ecosystem, and a sharing of all who have breathed the same air in ages past and present. It is also the basic experience that we are alive and that it is good to be alive, that life is a precious gift, that our life and we ourselves are a precious gift, even though it sometimes hurts. If we are able to arrive at a sense of gratitude for our life and all life as a gift, we are moved towards gratitude which flows naturally into compassion. In this regard, the Dalai Lama has said: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Spiritual author Wayne Muller has written: “Your challenge is not to keep trying to repair what was damaged; your practice instead is to reawaken what is already wise, strong, and whole within you.” He tells the story of Maria, abused by her father as a child, who continued to ask, “Why me?” He invited her to drop the “why” and simply repeat, “I hurt.” Then she began to feel and to weep the pain in her heart. This, he says, was the path to healing. She was able “to feel the deep healing that came from gently surrendering to her deepest feelings—not listening for the explanation or the blame or the injustice.” He adds that “both joy and suffering are threads that run through the entire fabric of our lives. To acknowledge this reality can free us from the need to find targets to blame.”
May the pain in your life never become too severe and may it find always a path to healing and compassion for yourself and others.
Norman King, February 6, 2022