The awful isn't us

Gargoyle, photo by Terry Barrett, Italy somewhere

I sat in my chair reading about the concept of causes and conditions after finishing a 6-week course taught by Pema Chodron. It’s not a new concept, and I was feeling a bit arrogant, sort of like I know this, but then I read:

When you feel you are being harmed by someone, remember that the harm that person may be inflicting on you (or someone dear to you) is the direct result of you yourself having harmed others in the past (p. 156).

That made me pause. 

I felt something shift inside of me. For a long time, I've understood the karmic concept as causes and conditions. But when I read those words, I personally felt their meaning. I suddenly saw—no, I felt—my deepest challenges as a larger understanding of difficulty and that hurting people often hurt others from a place of unresolved pain. 

Like coming up for air after being underwater to the point of drowning, I let out a wail. In my wail, I thought, "I must have been a tiger who ate children." The thought was not literal. It was an unfolding understanding. 

I had just learned of the alligator that took a boy from the shore at Disney World in Orlando while his parents watched.

In reflection about that event, I saw myself as the alligator.

Having once lost my boy swung like a pendulum to me hurting others. (Stay with me here, I'm not implying punishment.)

In the middle of the night, I felt gripped by emotive pain. I went to my cushion.
For hours, I alternated sitting with my feelings and breathing in my own pain and the pain of those parents.

For each breath, as instructed so many times by wisdom teachers, spontaneous connection to and comfort for others rhythmically arose. I breathed in pain and breathed out tenderness to the hurt and the hurters.

My sob-breaths softened as I better understood a myriad of causes and conditions coming together to create something - and then its dissolution. 

No matter what comes along, we're always standing at the center of the world in the middle of sacred space, and everything that comes into that circle and exists with us there has come to teach us what we need to know. - Pema Chodron

I remained sitting till a glimmer of dawn.

The uncomfortable feelings melted and passed. Loved teachers felt nearby.

This seems incredulous, but I felt a connection and compassion for that alligator and all those who hurt others because of ignorance, which surprised me because I know the unexpected loss. I understand a bit more about the pain of being consumed or caught in the insatiable consumption of thoughts and emotions as if spinning in a gerbil's wheel. I better understand that within all of us is innate goodness and a great capacity for learning, growing, and all the aspects of being that open our hearts: patience, tenderness, generosity, kindness, love, and compassion. I better understand personal loss and have a peek into a vast expanse of the many pieces of an experience. 

I am hurt and I am a hurter. What I mean in saying "I'm a hurter" is that though I aspire to no harm, for example, my frown as I pass another has an effect. From a larger view, all of us—yes, all of us are the alligator. We are also the child, and we are the parents of that child.

With gratitude for this breakthrough, I have more clarity about what it means to be patient while learning from tough experiences and the commitment it takes to become less reactive without being overcome by anger, hatred, and despair. Sitting with feelings, allowing and letting them be, and eventually analyzing them brings insight into the causes and conditions of awfulness. It seems unfathomable to me, but because of this insight, my mind and heart soften towards all. Even those who shoot, run over, bomb, and behead. 

It is possible to use awful, painful experiences to understand others and, perhaps, eventually realize that the awful isn't us.

This post was written July 17, 2016

In the midst of our tough projects...

Watching waves coming and going. Photograph, Terry Barrett

In the midst of our own tough projects, again heartbroken - we're reminded of all those suffering in wars. 

A friend asks: “What rituals or practices do you put in place to nurture and nourish yourself?” Her question helps, so I’m passing it along remembering "If you want to heal the world, start with yourself.”


Besides formal meditation practices, a few personal practices:

Talk to companions. 

Those who know the practice of listening, offering presence as love. 

Grandma practice. Watch children. 

A grandson jumps on a trampoline. In between bounces, his body finds a meditative criss-cross applesauce in a leap. 

Notice waves coming and going.

Go to the beach and watch the ebb and tide. This reminds me that everything changes, which galvanizes an ability to be open to allowing thoughts and feelings to see what can be learned.

Walk in nature.

I take myself on walks. I check this nest often. It's been empty for about a year. The Great Blue Heron found its way back! Difficulty invites a reclaiming of our beautiful innate nature to care, be kind, and love. To come home to this potential. A friend said, "The highest, bravest calling is to be with what is, even when what is promises much heartache."

Talk to yourself. 

"Susan, can you experience all of this in a being-with way?" When I can, though pain remains, suffering diminishes. I notice: the more I practice being with, the more neutral feelings become, and a rainbow, the energy particles transform. It takes again and again. So many agains.


Like the heartache and appreciative joy of a loved one dying, cradling his head on the couch as a mother would a baby and realizing no coming, no going. Look, he smiles as he sleeps.