Some words about suffering
Comfort for the Apocalypse, October 2022
I’ve been taking a break from this newsletter since May, around the same time I left a temporary job assignment due to unrealistic expectations and demands. I’ve been in recovery from that and sorting out some other things, which pushed writing to the backburner for awhile. Fortunately I’m feeling more like me again, and able to return to connecting here.
I was recently asked to speak at a memorial service for someone killed by a vehicle while riding their bike on some errands. I did not know this person, but her family found me on the internet and asked if I would come and give spiritual remarks from a Buddhist or meditation tradition and I agreed. I am an “official” Zen Buddhist after all, having taken lay vows six years ago, so it’s not completely outside my wheelhouse to speak about the Dharma or attend to matters of death.
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With the decline in organized religion, there is such a gap in ritual in the big events of life and death. When it comes to marriage, the civil system at least provides an inexpensive officiant, but there is no analogue for a funeral unless one pays a private funeral home for this service. And it’s a shame because memorial services in which no one gives overarching remarks or a eulogy have a tendency to feel a bit hollow, uncontained. In my years of Zen practice I’ve come to appreciate how much ritual provides the necessary container for supported experience, spiritual or otherwise.
Because the death was sudden, and the person was much-loved, the memorial service was tearful with many heartfelt words spoken by family and friends. What follows is an edited version of the words I shared at the memorial, for just as it is difficult to hold the loss of life without dwelling on grief, it can be as sorrowful to look out on our current social and environmental landscape and not think about our suffering planet.
To be alive is to encounter suffering. This is the first of the four noble truths - the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. We live in a world designed to turn us away from that suffering through the consumption of things. Digital media, gadgets, overseas vacations, video games, and so on. And yet the suffering persists both around us and inside of us. Even if we are temporarily relieved from it, it hangs around on the periphery, a bit of nag reminding us that all is not well.
This nagging feeling is like an itch. Sometimes when we meditate with others, everyone sitting very still in the meditation hall, we might get a terrible itch somewhere that is hard to reach. There is no way to scratch it without making a big movement which would disturb everyone around us, not mention alerting our teacher to the fact we are not in concentrated meditation. So we try to put the itch out of our mind, by focusing on our breathing, willing it to go away, ignoring it. But as anyone who sits on the cushion long enough knows, ignoring the itch rarely works. In fact, it often becomes more persistent the harder we try to banish it and then we are no longer meditating but feeling tortured instead. If you have been there, you know an itch can become an all-consuming enterprise for the mind.
What I find more useful is to spend a few moments focusing on the itch instead. That is, giving the itch all of my attention when it arises. Allowing it to blossom into even painful feelings, burning into my skin for the moments I give it. By some mechanism, this works. Focusing on the itch releases it much more quickly than attempting to ignore it. By focusing I don’t mean clinging, it’s really about accepting the existence of the itch as part of my current state of being.
The first noble truth is really about that. About bringing awareness to our suffering, and accepting the full experience rather than trying to shove it into a corner and forget about it. We cannot problem solve from a state of ignorance, nor can we reach out to our community of support from a place of aversion. Without accepting the difficult feelings and moments, we are trapped and alone. Modern trauma research shows that to ignore our difficult experiences is simply to delay our reaction to them, creating further emotional separation from others and even from ourselves. When we instead open in our suffering to others, we not only lessen our own pain but make a bridge of connection so that others may do the same.
This is the basis for the second noble truth, which is that our suffering arises from the belief we are separate from one another and from the world itself. In one of my favourite teachings on the nature of death, Shunryu Suzuki talks about a visit to Yosemite National Park in the sixties where he encountered some very big waterfalls. He describes watching the water come down from a distance, and how it appears as a “curtain thrown from the top of the mountain”.
It does not seem to come down swiftly, as you might expect; it seems to come down very slowly because of the distance. And the water does not come down as one stream, but is separated into many tiny streams….. And I thought it must be a very difficult experience for each drop of water to come down from the top of such a high mountain. It takes time… for the water finally to reach the bottom of the waterfall. And it seems to me that our human life may be like this. We have many difficult experiences in our life. But at the same time, I thought, the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river. Only when it is separated does it have some difficulty in falling… [but also] Only when separated into many drops can it begin to have or to express some feeling…. Before we were born we had no feeling; we were one with the universe. This is called “mind-only,” … or “big mind.” After we are separated by birth from this oneness, as the water falling from the waterfall is separated by the wind and rocks, then we have feeling. You have difficulty because you have feeling. You attach to the feeling you have without knowing just how this feeling is created. When you do not realize that you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear. Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing. When we realize this fact we have no fear of death anymore, and we have no actual difficulty in our life. When the water returns to its original oneness with the river, it no longer has any individual feeling to it; it resumes its own nature, and finds composure. How very glad the water must be to come back to the original river!
Suzuki was someone who had great understanding, and in this teaching he shares that our lives can be seen as part of a greater whole, a flowing river that separates and then returns once more to the great body of water, eventually becoming the oceans around us and the water we drink. In his example, he takes us from the second to the third noble truth, which is that a peaceful mind is a possibility in our lifetime, something achievable by us drops of water even as we hurtle through the space and time of our lives.
That’s easier said than done though. Especially when we are right in the middle of the strong feelings, like grief, fury, and outrage. It feels like these sufferings are out of our control, and we live in a culture that reinforces that through institutional messages, media manipulation, and the stories we tell each other. It takes a lot to find a different framework of understanding, a lifetime of dedicated practice.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Humpback whales. They have been very present inside the Georgia Straight and on the west coast of Vancouver Island this fall. I have heard many beautiful stories about them and have also seen them myself a few times.
A few weeks ago, I was traveling from my small island to the big island, when a group of whales circled our ferry and everyone crowded onto the deck to watch the five or six Humpbacks (one of them a calf) swimming on both sides of the ferry, breaching and blowing. While I wouldn’t say they were circling the boat, they did seem to be escorting it. The captain shut the engines down entirely to avoid striking a whale that might cross over the front of the bow. It was difficult to tell exactly what the whales were doing, were they hunting? playing? But they had an awareness of us humans watching them, escorting their early morning fellow travelers on the boat.
Some people took out their phones, others just stood and watched while the kids ran up to the sundeck to get another view without adult bodies in the way, and for about fifteen minutes we floated, engineless, while the whales swam back and forth. Eventually, by some cue, they all headed off together, leaving us behind to resume our trip.
It was one of those moments, where time slows and people get out of themselves and connect, united in a moment of awe. Like viewing an eclipse from a park in the middle of a large city and talking to strangers in the dark, the separation between us thinned. People came out and chatted with each other; no one complained they were going to be late. The sight of the whales brought a pure joy out of people that they shared, divisions and isolation temporarily forgotten
We are so lucky to have this gift of whales returning to our waters. And not only humpback whales, but minkes, transient orcas, right whales, sea lions, seals, and sea otters. They bless us with their presence after nearly being extirpated not so long ago. Growing up on Vancouver Island in the seventies, we took the ferry to mainland often but rarely saw a whale, now we encounter them on a regular basis.
The reason for that is simple. From the late fifties to the late sixties, Canada stopped a number of behaviours targeting marine mammals. We stopped killing sea lions and seals as nuisance animals, we ended our participation in the international whaling fleets. We closed our whaling stations and banned the sale of whale products from the commercial fishery and hunt. We are lucky this was done before the very end of these animals, and it has taken more than fifty years for them to return in the numbers we know them now, which are near-historic for some of these species.
When we consider the turn-around, it’s quite remarkable. That not so long ago, in the lifetimes of many of us, we collectively changed the way we saw these marine mammals. We went from seeing the humpback whale as a menace and a commercial product, to something quite different indeed. A source of joy. A blessing. We have welcomed them back to their rightful home in our shared waters and they seem to want to communicate with us again.
The humpback whales around Vancouver Island are proof we can encounter the world differently than we currently do, of our capacity for transformation. That through a series of right actions we not only changed the laws, but our whole understanding of these creatures and our relationship to them. They are a reminder that the world as we see it, is just that: the world as we see it. We are fortunate that the world is not limited to our understanding.
Even when our view of reality is clouded, as it is for us most of the time, the practices of right living transform us, and our relationship to everything else. This is the fourth noble truth, and one we can learn about through skillful practices in our lifetime. While we may never fully realize the end of suffering, we can still practice wise understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, concentration, and mindfulness. Each of these practices help us get through life with more skill and ease, creating a buffer against the worst of our suffering.
The moment we are born and leave the great river we are challenged by the presence of feeling, feelings that occlude the reality of our life. We are restless without understanding we have already arrived at our true home, we are anxious or bereft without grasping that everything we need is within and around us. While it sounds simple, we know it is not. Only through practices that open us to each other and our greater world, do we find our way through.
October recipe: Walnut Pesto
Now that basil season has ended, walnut pesto should be in our your quick recipes list for fall and winter pasta dinners. Simple, satisfying, and incredibly delicious!
1 cup walnuts
⅓ cup lightly packed flat-leaf parsley
2 cloves garlic, diced
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (plus more for serving)
½ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
In a food processor or blender, pulse the walnuts, parsley, garlic, Parmesan, oil, salt, and pepper to a coarse puree. Serve over fresh pasta with more parmesan.
In the workshop
Painting is not within my skillsets, and yet I’ve been having such fun experimenting with paints made from natural dyes, tannins, and minerals (like iron) these last few weeks. I’m taking an online workshop through Maiwa School of Textiles which has given me a whole set of new techniques and skills to work with. I have two more weeks of coursework before the end and lots of ideas to work with over the winter.
The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Ilness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture | Gabor Maté’s latest offering to the world explores attachment and authenticity, auto-immunity and stress, and the ways in which our society sets us up for illness—personal and global. As always he is compelling, and well-researched, his work giving us a path to healing if we are willing to take it.
Burn Wild | Seventeen years after the Earth Liberation Front arrests in the United States, some of those indicted speak for the first time on record in this podcast which explores the question, “how far is too far when the planet is on fire?” An 8-part series by the BBC.
The Death Artist | A long read by Maggie Donahue about how one artist works with death, and the importance of bringing death and its objects into our everyday lives to get more comfortable with it individually and as a culture.
This month’s writing is a bit more like a dharma talk than normal and I expect some of you are wondering what’s up with that. Sometimes I get asked to delivery Buddhist-y words at things because I am a Zen practitioner and took vows in the Soto Zen tradition several years ago. I have no “official” standing or even true understanding except that which I’ve experienced through my own practice, and yet I think it’s helpful to offer words when asked given the lack of death ritual in our culture these days. More essays on the (not) end of the world coming soon!
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