Category Archives: painful moments

Black-eyed Dharma

I recently taught a day long retreat with a black eye, the result of a fall I had while hiking in the mountains. My hands and knees were also bruised but not so on display as this amazingly dramatic black eye and bruised chin.

‘Well, meditation clearly doesn’t save you from pain,” my students might well have thought.

True! But it did help to illuminate in the moment of impact and those that followed as I sat on that granite cliff, gasping for breath, sobbing, as my forehead gushed blood down my face, my hair and all over my clothes and the rock below, and my dear husband dug frantically around in the backpack to find our first aid kit.

In that moment, I noticed the physical sensation of having fallen, and there was pain, of course, but the pain was not as severe as pain I’ve known in my life. The tears came from the thoughts that were coursing through my head. ‘Oh my God! Why didn’t I pick up my foot a little higher?’ and ‘Oh please, don’t let anything be broken!’ and ‘Oh no, how will we get ourselves back down the mountain? Can I possibly hike three miles in this state?’ and ‘Oh no, I’ve ruined our perfect camping trip!’ and ‘Thank goodness I fell here, not twenty feet earlier where I might have tumbled down a cliff.’ But my over-riding concern in that moment, as Will tore open the little packets of alcohol, anti-bacterial unguent and bandages was for the way the strong mountain wind was whipping those little white pieces of paper up. I kept grabbing them and collecting them, determined not to leave litter on the mountain. Will assured me he would pick everything up after we got the blood staunched and my wounds tended, but I knew the wind was going to blow them off our little outcropping to places he would not be able to reach and I simply could not bear to litter this pristine wilderness with the detritus of my mishap. That was the pain that focused my attention.

Noticing. That was the gift of meditation in that moment. And later, safely back down the mountain, assured there was no permanent damage, and comforted by a chocolate ice cream cone and an ice pack on my swollen brow and lip, I was able to see that the cause of my fall was my lack of mindfulness in previous moments. I had stubbornly resisted my body’s cues that clearly warned me I had hiked high enough, even if I hadn’t reached our goal: a picnic spot at a pair of mountain lakes. I had multiple opportunities to heed what my body was saying: When I noticed I was too tired to go on; when I noticed that even though we were trying to conserve water, I really needed to be drinking more of it; and when I let a whole series of future and past thoughts override my awareness of the moment.

What tripped me up was not just a little tree stump, but the thought that for the past few years, every time we are in the mountains and we decide to hike to a certain spot, we never get there! We always turn back! So it seemed to me that to give in again, to ‘not get there’ this time, was to acknowledge something much larger than merely the tiredness I was feeling in my body. It was acknowledging aging, change, a lack of control over what I could or couldn’t do. Or it was acknowledging that I was out of shape and needed to spend the rest of the year being more active, taking much longer more rigorous walks. All of this thinking was weighing on me as I hiked up that rocky trail that required intense concentration for each step.

And so, I refused to turn back each time Will suggested I seemed tired and maybe we should. The heat was oppressive, especially as I covered myself thoroughly, not trusting my sunscreen to be enough to protect my skin, and not sure how many hours we had been hiking.

Youthful hikers bounced by us and I felt ancient in a way I’ve never felt ancient before. Their ease made my discomfort all the more unacceptable. Oh comparing mind! Also I occasionally chide myself for being comfort-loving and soft, and I wanted to challenge that image, I wanted to show that inner voice that I was made of tougher stuff.

But in the last portion of the trail to the lakes, there was suddenly a very steep, much narrower dirt section that I had to look at with the eyes of the surgeon who replaced my hip two years before. It looked very slippery and precarious. Maybe I could get up it, but how would I ever get back down? Maybe I could do it if I was fresh, but I could never do it in this state.

So we turned around. Once again! Defeated and exhausted, I followed my long shadow back down the gravel trail that demanded even greater concentration going downhill. My shadow was hypnotic, an elongated version of my three-year old self who, according to family lore, was dragged up the Smokey Mountains against her will. Now the shadow of my straw hat pulled in at the sides by the shirt I tied to keep it anchored from the strong wind, made the shape of the little bonnet I wore on that journey sixty years before.

So we walked together this small grumpy child and I, following my beloved husband down the mountain. Our descent was slow but buoyed by our plan to return to a shady view spot we remembered from our climb that seemed a good place to rest and have our picnic. Somewhere along the way, I took the lead, and when we arrived at the spot and I stepped off the trail, relaxing into my tiredness, thirst and hunger. And in that moment of release, of letting down my intense concentration on each step that had been necessary for survival on this challenging trail, I missed seeing the little stump in the shadow of a rock, and I tripped and fell.

Will says that for him it happened in slow motion, watching me fall and feeling helpless from his position to save me. For me, there was a moment lost somewhere. There was the arriving at the rest spot with a sense of relief, and there was being flat on the granite, my sunglasses flying off to the left, my face smashed against the jagged rock, blood erupting, and me saying, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

During the week that followed, I found the most challenging part was dealing with the dirty looks my sweet husband was getting when we were together as strangers assumed he did the damage.
One male friend joked that Will should point to my black eye and say, “She wouldn’t listen.” I was horrified by his suggestion because of the serious nature of spousal abuse. I couldn’t find the humor in it. But you know what? He was right. I got a black eye because I wouldn’t listen! I didn’t listen to Will when he expressed his concerns about my well-being on the climb, and I didn’t listen to my own body when it said enough already. So let that be a lesson to me!

So no, meditation doesn’t always save us from pain, though in this case it could have, had I stayed more present with my experience. We’ll discuss that aspect more when we get into the Eightfold Path and Wise Action.

But, just as that black eye has healed so quickly, showing a wonderful resilience, my meditation practice provides me with more mental and emotional resilience than I would have had otherwise. It provides a more expansive view of things so that I don’t keep kicking myself for my misstep, don’t keep knocking myself down over and over again. And, although I admit I did give that little stump a good kick and a piece of my mind as we left that now-bloodied rest stop, it was in jest, and I haven’t indulged in railing against it, or the trail or the heat or my body or any other condition that could easily become the tarbaby dukkha delivery system. How many events in our lives are still holding us hostage, still delivering dukkha as if we have a standing order?

My meditation practice gave me the patience to give myself a lot of down time to rest and heal, even though it’s been a busy time. It gave me the ability to process a painful experience with compassion and more clarity than I would have had otherwise.

It gave me gratitude for being alive, an awareness of impermanence and a new appreciation for my face without bruises. I look prettier to me now! During the period my face was so shocking to see that people gasped or averted their eyes, I appreciated this gift of insight into how it might be to have some permanent disfigurement in such a prominent place as the face; how it must be to constantly deal with the responses of others, when one feels perfectly normal inside. This experience carved a deeper sense of compassion in me, as I felt my desire to just stay home, to just avoid going out all together.

I have made use of the black eye, working it, making ‘lemonade’ out of this lemon experience. This dharma talk, a poem brewing somewhere within me, and even a two minute speech at the Civic Center. I was scheduled to give a ‘Tip of the Day’ at my Toastmasters meeting there, and had planned to talk about our camping trip with a suggestion people visit that area. I did that, but I choreographed it to keep my ‘dark side’ covered with my Veronica Lake locks until the dramatic reveal of my black eye and the suggestion that people should watch their step when hiking. The gasp of the audience was priceless!

It’s a traditional Buddhist practice to sit with such examples of impermanence, so I was providing a service to you, my dear students as you watched me giving my dharma talk in class and on retreat. What a devoted teacher!

So I open this up to explore that quality of noticing, of heeding our inner wisdom and what happens when we don’t. What recent experiences in your own life have given you this same lesson, or this same sense of gratitude for the practice? What past events are still holding you hostage? When you have some time and want to explore, meditate and then ask these questions of yourself. The answers will arise and may even surprise you.

First Noble Truth: Embodiment as Awareness

We’ve been exploring the First Noble Truth, that there is suffering in life. We have re-visited a couple of dharma talks on the topic and discussed our own experience of the First Noble Truth.

When we revisit a subject, especially one as big as the First Noble Truth, naturally we see areas that were not covered in the first go-round. For me, one of these areas is embodiment. What is embodiment? It is, quite simply, coming home to our bodies, to the sensations in our bodies, to anchoring our awareness in these sensations in order to stay present in the moment.

In class we do a lot of embodiment practice as we settle in to our meditation. We come into awareness of the whole body, as an energetic field, and we practice concentration practice on specific areas of the body, or on specific sensation, like the rising and/or falling of the breath or the sounds we hear as we sit.

But I don’t believe I have focused on this embodiment in my dharma talks, and as I reread the talks, with an eye to editing them into book-form, I see that this is a gaping hole in my writing, especially since I happen to be reading a book of essays titled Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment.

Exploring our relationship with our bodies is a vital and valid practice. It is a primary relationship and for most women, one that is fraught with much suffering — physical, emotional and mental. So it is a very useful place to explore the First Noble Truth. There is suffering. Yeah! So I’ve noticed! Ouch!

I just read an essay by Linda Chrisman titled ‘Birth.’ As a Buddhist practitioner and a woman who had done a great deal of body-focused awareness practice in many different forms, she had a hard time accepting the fact, in retrospect, that she had experienced so much pain in childbirth. She had thought all her meditation and body awareness practice would exempt her from the pain that birthing women have experienced throughout history.

She writes, “ was only after giving birth and feeling like a failure that I realized I had expected these practices to protect me from pain.”

Through the process of writing about her experience, she saw that the point of all her practices was not to protect her from pain. Instead, they had given her the gift of being conscious and fully present for the powerful sensations that are a part of the birthing process.

This brings up such a good question about our own motivations for meditation practice. Are we expecting our practice to protect us from pain? When we experience mental, emotional or physical pain, do we feel like we must not be doing something right, that an awakened being is beyond pain?
Let’s be clear that the only being beyond pain is a corpse. And even though that’s where we will all end up, practice or no, let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

As you may recall Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, wrote a book titled Be Here Now, and was a key figure in turning people on to awareness in the 1960’s. In the late 1990’s he had a stroke, and I remember his account of being strapped to a gurney and being pushed through the hospital corridor. He felt that all his years of meditative practice had forsaken him. What was it all for, if, at this moment of crisis, he was absolutely terrified and confused?

His experience of a stroke momentarily threw him for a loop. But after that initial derailment, his lifelong focus on awareness gave him a way to be with his experience, with all the losses of ability, with the loss of the life as he had known it, and he was able to find his way again. He was able to complete his book on conscious aging, titled Still Here.

That moment when he felt forsaken reminds me of how Jesus on the cross asked God, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” I imagine that Jesus must have previously felt so supported in his own ‘practice’ of sensing his connection to God and to his fellow beings. But on that cross, in that moment of extreme physical and emotional pain, despair arose within him as it would for any of us, as it did for Ram Dass. And one can’t help but wonder, ‘What’s the point? If in the moment you most need support, the rug is pulled out from under you, what’s the point of the practice?’

But this moment passes. Whether it’s a moment in meditation where we feel we will never ‘get it’ or a moment on the scale when we feel no matter what we do we will never lose those pounds, or a moment where we have received awful news, personal or global, that leaves us wondering why bother going on when life is so sad or scary? Meditation does not make us immune to this experience. Meditative practice is not a vaccine that protects us from pain. To believe that is just one more prescription for suffering.

There is no practice, belief or behavior that will create a magic protective shield against life. And really, is that what we want? To arrive at death’s door untouched by life, as if we’d never pecked open the shell of our lives and allowed ourselves room to grow?

No, if we are honest with ourselves, we find that we want to experience this earthly life fully, not by simply checking off a bucket list of things we want to do before we die, but by being fully available for whatever experience we go through, planned or unplanned, deserved or undeserved, pleasant or unpleasant. We live fully by letting life in, by letting it carve our hearts a little deeper, fill our skin with wrinkles, sags and cellulite, and letting life use up our cartilage, leaving us aching. We let life in so that we may know what it is to be alive as soft complex animals on a verdant planet traveling through vast space.

So the point of the practice is to develop awareness, not to create an insulating shield. The point is to develop compassion for ourselves and all life, to feel deeply connected to this collective is-ness of energetic being, purring in the delight of being alive.

So if you have been feeling a failure because your practice has not yet delivered the pure perfect contentment you desire, ask yourself instead if it has delivered on the only promise it ever made: that you might become more aware and more compassionate.

If things are so painful, why do we want to be aware of them? Because when we are not aware, when we go numb or unconscious, we not only experience pain but we create incredible amounts of additional suffering for ourselves and others.

The distinction between pain and suffering is crucial. This earthly existence provides abundant opportunities to experience pain — pain in our bodies through accident or illness, and pain in our hearts through loss and misunderstanding. But when we compound this pain by borrowing from the past or the future — remembering previous pains and fearing this pain will go on forever – then we suffer.

Embodiment, the practice of centering our awareness in physical sensation, helps us to make this distinction. When we notice pain, with awareness we can distinguish between the sensations that we are experiencing as unpleasant, sometimes unbearable, and the emotions and thoughts that rush in around the experience. This is the practice.

The practice does not erase pain. And at moments of extreme pain, it might even seem as if the practice has forsaken us, as it did for Ram Dass in that moment of panic flat on his back on a gurney, his body screaming, his mind in anguish, being pushed through the hospital corridors.

But in fact, when our panic subsides, we find the benefits of the practice we have cultivated are there to support us. The practice doesn’t flatten the sea of our experience. Instead it provides us the means to navigate more skillfully, even allowing us to be present enough to surf the waves, savoring the experience of life as it is in this moment.

First Noble Truth – Review

This week we started our Summer Rerun Series, so the posts will be shorter than usual, as we will be re-reading an older post and then discussing it in class. I will provide links to the original post so you can follow along.

The class requested this review period because they feel that now that they have been meditating for a couple of years, they want to bring their deeper understanding to the Buddha’s basic teachings. (Also, we have several new students in class for whom this is not review.)

You can never step in the same river twice. Even if you read the dharma talk before, or studied these concepts elsewhere, you are in a different place now. You will hear the words differently, and you will have different insights. So I encourage you to join us!

I began the series by reading the post on the First Noble Truth. After reading this dharma talk for yourself, you are invited to join the class in noticing during the coming week when you are in pain. See if you can sit with the pain, whether it is physical, mental or emotional. We are practicing awareness, in this case awareness of pain, and noticing how we amplify whatever pain exists by piling on emotionally charged associated memories from the past or fears for the future.

In class we shared current physical and emotional pains to use as examples to work with. This wasn’t a bunch of whining, but an informed exploration of the experience, and the physical sensations that arise around pain of any kind. ‘Where do I feel this in my body?’ is an important question to ask ourselves when we notice ourselves suffering.

Why In Times of Crisis Meditators are Especially Grateful for the Practice

As meditators, we are grateful for our practice that helps us more skillfully navigate this current financial crisis and all situations in our lives — not as observers untouched by the experience, but as conscious participants, fully engaged but clear seeing.

Here are some examples of the kinds of differences in our daily lives that we meditators often find between having a regular meditation practice and not having one:

Say you have a headache or stomach upset after looking at the value of your retirement fund or the daily news. As a non-meditator you might take a drug or try to distract yourself in various unskillful ways, and if it persists call the doctor in hopes of more heavy duty drugs.

As a practiced meditator you will more likely sit with the sensation of the pain, notice the emotional component and breathe into the experience. You may recognize the tension in the body and understand the cause and condition from which it arose. You may give yourself more spaciousness, be gentle with yourself right now, not take on too much during this period, and perhaps take walks in nature or meditate more frequently.

As a non-meditator you may not connect the fear you are feeling with the anger you are expressing to family or fellow drivers on the road. You may not see the connection between your anxiety and your difficulty doing your work, so you give yourself a hard time for being so stupid. And you may give coworkers, also affected by the crisis, a hard time for their suddenly less than stellar performances as well.

As a practiced meditator you will be more likely to see the connection between your emotions, thoughts and behaviors, and sense your connection to all other beings. So you will be more likely to take the fear experience, sit with it, and allow it to inform your interactions with your coworkers, family and everyone else, in the form of compassionate understanding for any unskillful displays they show in response to their own anxiety.

As a non-meditator you may compound your fear by getting caught up in incessantly imagining a dark future, rerunning images of the 1930’s in your head, thinking back over what you might have done differently in the past that would have changed this outcome or cursing the past actions of others in an endless loop of blame. This leaves you unable to be attentive to the current moment that requires your full attention.

As a practiced meditator you have trained your mind to notice when your thoughts get caught up in the future or the past and you can skillfully and gently bring your attention back to this moment, knowing that this is the only moment that is real, the one you can experience with all your senses and the only one in which you can take action. The future and the past are just plans, fantasies and memories, in other words, just thoughts.

As a non-meditator you may have your identity firmly invested in your material wealth or your position. As a practiced meditator you have a greater opportunity to begin to recognize that you are not your stuff, that your value is not composed of material wealth, prestige or how you make that wealth, that you – and all of us – are uniquely and universally valuable just the way we are.

These are some of the reasons why at times of crisis meditators turn to each other and say, “I am so grateful for the practice. I can’t imagine going through this without the practice.”

Of course there are people who don’t have a regular sitting practice who have found the same spaciousness of mind. Perhaps they do Qi Gong or some other form, or perhaps they have a naturally spacious mind. But for most of us, without a meditative practice of some kind, we fall into the habitual and unskillful patterns of mind that bring us ongoing suffering.

At a time of crisis those who don’t have a regular practice might say to themselves, “I really should start to meditate.” or “I need to meditate more regularly.” It’s never too late to start!

If you would like to learn more about getting started meditating, click on the link (right side of this page) to my website — In the meditation section you will find several downloadable pages that offer ways to begin. If you need more help, contact me, or find a meditation center in your area.

The Tao de Ching says…

The Tao de Ching says to ‘move in harmony with the present moment, always knowing the truth of just what to do.’

When I think of the most awkward, embarassing and painful moments of my life, I can see they have one thing in common. In each one I was not fully in the present moment but was caught up in trying to hold on to the past or feeling fearful of an imagined future.
For example, one time many years ago I was at a party dancing – I love to dance and my husband Will doesn’t – and I discovered that a friend of ours was a great dance partner. We danced for a long time in perfect sync. It was wonderful to find someone who was on the same wave length in that way.
The next time I saw him in a totally different situation – a quiet dinner party, definitely not a dance – I felt the pull of that past experience and wanted to recreate it. I tried to get him to dance with me and was gently but firmly rebuffed. I was hurt, but not by him. He was present in the moment enjoying conversation with friends. I was hurt by my unwillingness to let go of a past pleasurable experience, to allow for the possibility that this moment might have its own charms. It was a lesson for me then, and I try to accept the lesson without punishing myself for being oh so very human, wanting to repeat a pleasurable experience.

Take a moment to allow a past experience to come into your awareness, and see if the pain you experienced was either caused or amplified by your not being fully present in the moment. Is there a lesson in there for you too?